Monday, December 01, 2014

Good Golly, Miss Julie

For some reason, theater companies are constantly enticed by the dramatic possibilities of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, but often feel the need to re-conceptualize and modernize the play for contemporary audiences. For instance, there have been the Mississippi Freedom Summer production, several Apartheid South Africa re-settings, and Neil LaBute’s Gatsby-esque take. For her new cinematic adaptation, Liv Ullmann is relatively faithful to her source material, simply moving it to an Irish estate while maintaining the 1890s timeframe. The mistress of the manor will indeed spend an overheated Midsummer’s Eve with two of her father’s servants in Ullmann’s respectfully traditional Miss Julie (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Miss Julie was expected to celebrate midsummer with her young and beautiful friends of equal social standing. Instead, she crashed the servant’s barn dance. She already carried a whiff of scandal, but her reckless pursuit of her father’s valet John (formerly Jean) could cause social Armageddon, at least for her. John has long carried both a romantic torch and lingering class-based resentments for Miss Julie. Given his engagement to Kathleen, the kitchen maid, John initially attempts to deflect her advancements. However, he will soon become a destabilizing devil whispering in her ear.

Strindberg’s play is so deeply steeped in rigid class demarcations, American audiences really need an added racial component to relate to the underlying drama. This is the land that invented social mobility, so when Kathleen admonishes John “class is class” the full significance is largely lost on us. It is as much a plea to remain faithful to his own class as it is a warning not risk reprisals for getting ideas above his station.

Few plays represent such a minefield of heavy-handed symbolism as Miss Julie, yet Ullmann opts to highlight nearly every example, from the dog Miss Julie feeds an abortifacient after her frisky behavior with a mongrel to her ill-fated caged bird. Likewise, she presents the realities of late Nineteenth Century social mores in as harsh a light as possible. Frankly, Strindberg has been unjustly labeled a misogynist based on shallow readings of Miss Julie’s most problematic passages, but as an extreme naturalist, he was represented life as it was, not as he thought it should be. Ullmann’s adaptation will do little to rehabilitate him with those inclined to misinterpret.

Regardless, as an intimate three-hander (for all intents and purposes), any production of Miss Julie offers an opportunity for its principles to shine. Unfortunately, even though we can see Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell trying their hardest, they just cannot find the keys to unlock their characters. Nonetheless, Chastain understands a glacial reserve is often required for Miss Julie, while Farrell can deliver the appropriate malevolent intensity to maintain the dramatic dynamics. They are both excellent performers (Farrell is especially undervalued), but they simply can’t quite land these roles. Conversely, Samantha Morton truly taps into the essence of Kathleen, powerfully conveying the comfort she takes from her (formerly Calvinist) faith and the hardscrabble certainties of her class.

It is always nice to see someone take another shot at a literary classic and given her accomplished work with Ingmar Bergman and Jan Troell, as well as her celebrated Broadway turns, we ought to be interested in any project Ullmann takes on. Yet, it is hard to get a sense of what exactly it was about the play that originally spoke to her. Nonetheless, she makes the kitchen of Castle Coole in County Fermanagh fill the screen quite cinematically. The soundtrack, featuring fresh recordings of Schubert and Schumann, is also quite lovely, but it is cranked up a bit too high in the sound-mix. Altogether, it is a classy production, but it rarely gets past the outward forms and down to the inner truths. Recommended primarily for Swedish-Norwegian-Irish expats and fans of the big name cast, Miss Julie opens this Friday (12/5) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.