Strenuously acted dramas make for strenuous viewing, and Liv Ullmann’s rigorous adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which uproots the action to 19th-century Ireland, is no exception.
Jessica Chastain plays Julie, the lonely daughter of a baron, who enters into a night of drunken flirtation and emotional abuse with her father’s scummy, manipulative valet, John (Colin Farrell). Chastain is a veteran stage actress, just as Ullmann was before her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, and Ullmann’s simple directorial style brings out the best in her: There’s just enough bite in Chastain’s arrogant, tempestuous Julie to save the film from being an arcane dramatic exercise with great art direction. As Julie moves from boredom and frustration to despair, the strain is visible in her unkempt hair, her shaking hands, and her face, eventually streaked with blood.
Through Ullmann’s lens, John is a less complex figure, whose grotesque misogyny overshadows the play’s commentary on class tensions. He’s a true, shuddering “shitpile,” as Julie calls him — beware a scene in which he administers a harsh fate to a pet bird — and Farrell plays him as a slick-haired, shifty-eyed charmer bent on destruction. Samantha Morton, meanwhile, wrings truth from a minor role as Kathleen, a pious cook whose steadfast morality clashes with the whiplash emoting of the leads; while all the crying, panting, and sadomasochistic boot-kissing is going on in the kitchen, Kathleen understandably retreats to her bedroom with Julie’s pet pug.
There’s a humanist undercurrent in Ullmann’s portrayal of these very different women, but there’s precious little justice for either one of them. Despite a few dynamite scenes from Chastain, Miss Julie‘s cruelty is more potent than its craft.