As Judy Garland in the last year of her life, Renée Zellweger gives a knockout performance in “Judy,” an uneven biopic that focuses on the singer’s London concerts six months before her death.
Rupert Goold’s absorbing drama, opening Sept. 27 at the Ritz Five, starts with a young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) being told by Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) that she is special. Her voice is “her gift,” and it “gives people dreams.” When Judy gives her first performance at the Talk of the Town cabaret in London — a show-stopping rendition of “By Myself” — “Judy” shows the power of that voice. Zellweger did all her own singing and is even releasing an album of Garland covers in conjunction with the film.
But while she can be incandescent on stage, Garland is a mess off stage. The film’s first half-hour has her fighting her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their kids, experiencing homelessness — she is denied her hotel room for being in arrears on payment — and remaining unemployed because of her reputation for being both unreliable and uninsurable. Garland takes the opportunity to perform in London as a way of earning income to get her kids back and her career back on track.
“Judy,” written by Tom Edge who adapted Peter Quilter’s play “End of the Rainbow,” wisely focuses on this tragic period of her life, illuminating Garland’s psychological state. Garland’s loneliness is beautifully depicted in shots of her in her dressing room after a performance or fitfully trying to sleep in a king-sized hotel bed. Goold creates distinct visual styles for the on stage, off stage, and backstage scenes, as well as flashbacks that show a young Garland on the MGM lot.
The episodes from her youth — she defiantly takes a bite out of a hamburger or goes swimming when she is not supposed to — reveal aspects of her life that echo in her later years. Even if these scenes illustrate how Garland was beaten down as a child, and account for her difficulties as an adult, they show a fearless Garland, not someone fragile or vulnerable — a misstep, perhaps. Moreover, while these episodes emphasize Garland’s struggles with diet pills, an eating disorder and her sleeping problems, they don’t contribute much to the narrative and seem to be included only for the benefit of those viewers who don’t know Garland’s troubled history.
Better are scenes that show 47-year-old Garland’s anxiety, as when she expresses her all-too-real concern, “What if I can’t do it again?” after a successful opening night. Garland’s lack of self-esteem is a theme throughout “Judy,” and one of the film’s most touching sequences has Garland meeting two fans, Stan (Daniel Cerqueira) and Dan (Andy Nyman), by the stage door after a show and going back to their flat for a meal. The exchange, where the two older gay men talk with their icon, eat an omelet, and even play cards, is truly lovely. It becomes even more poignant when Garland sings a slowed-down version of “Get Happy,” which is so heartfelt, it may bring viewers to tears.
“Judy” would have benefited from more quietly powerful moments like this one. Instead, an embarrassing incident when the performer behaves badly in front of an audience provides shock but not emotional resonance. Likewise, Judy’s relationship with the much younger Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), is more peculiar than satisfying as portrayed here.
Some of the film’s episodes — like the ones with Mickey — simply lack energy. A doctor visit, where Garland is told that she needs to take better care of herself, comes off flat. In contrast, Judy is empathetic when she’s responding to a TV host’s invasive question with candor and sass. A call to her daughter Lorna (Bella Ramsey) during a particular bout of homesickness is also affecting.
“Judy” dazzles during its musical numbers, which include a fantastic performance of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and, of course, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” performed in a simultaneously corny and forceful scene.
Zellweger throws herself into the title role and transcends playing Garland, never falling into camp, or mimicking the singer. She also captures Garland’s mannerisms without making them seem fake. Zellweger’s expressions reveal the fragility of Garland’s nature beautifully; she can look scared and apprehensive one minute and is smiling the next.
“Judy” is all about Garland’s highs and lows. Real strength is shown when Garland belts “For Once in My Life,” deliriously happy with her new husband, Mickey. However, aspects of “Judy” feel underdeveloped, as when the film depicts how the performer’s addictions took a toll on her life and career, especially given the emphasis on her backstory.
“Judy” hits all the notes, but it is Zellweger’s mesmerizing turn that viewers will remember.