This fall, Paramount somehow managed to persuade three prestigious film festivals to schedule "Being Julia" as their gala opening-night event. Apparently none of the three ever bothered to screen the film in advance, or they would have relegated it to an early-morning time following someone else's late-night celebration. However, the film is now in release and must be addressed.
"Being Julia" is taken from a Somerset Maugham novel, "Theatre," and might well be titled "All About Eve's Revenge." Set in the 1930s, it stars Annette Bening as the London theatre diva Julia Lambert, now edging close to middle age and not very happy about it. Though married to her manager/producer Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), they have what he calls "a modern marriage;" that is, no sex, please. So she indulges herself in an affair with a very young American, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), who is actually enamored with the ingenue Dolly deVries (Miriam Margolyes) and schemes to get Dolly the lead in Julia's next play. The film is the story of how their plan almost comes off but - in a magnificent piece of theatre - is foiled on stage by Julia.
It sounds good in the telling, but in fact there is only one worthwhile element in "Being Julia," and that is a torrid, witty, perfectly timed bravura performance by Bening, whose acting chops we don't see often enough these days (remember "American Beauty?"). For the rest, the film's Hungarian director Istvan Szabo ("Sunshine," "Father," "Mephisto") has staged the film clunkily, with little sense of wit or sex appeal. We wonder if he understands English enough to direct this kind of verbal interplay. And with the exception of the old hands Irons and Michael Gambon (as Julia's mentor), the rest of the cast ranges from weak to amateurish. This is particularly true of the young male lover Shaun Evans, who plays as though he's the lead in a high-school production. He can't read lines, moves awkwardly, and looks totally lost whenever he's in a scene with Bening. Let's hope Bening's next film will be worthy of her talents.