Renée Zellweger plays the late-career Judy Garland in the period biopic “Judy,” and her heartbreaking, funny, caring performance turns what could easily have been a middling melodrama into a captivating character portrait.
Directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge (adapting a play by Peter Quilter), the film, like “Stan and Ollie,” dramatizes a vital episode in the late phase of a major entertainment act. It explores Garland’s early career as well.
In 1969, 46-year-old Judy Garland is a frail, boozing, pill-popping wreck. The Los Angeles hotel where she’s been living has ejected her for not paying the bill. She’s fighting ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their two children. Deemed unreliable, the once in-demand singer-actress can find work only in small, low-paying clubs.
In London, however, audiences still love Judy, and, needing the paycheck, she arrives in the swinging British city to perform for five weeks at a high-profile cabaret.
It’s shaky going. On opening night, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), assigned by impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to watch Judy, has to slip the sedated, insecure diva into a dress and practically force her onto the stage. Fortunately, when Judy hears the applause, she performs triumphantly.
Other nights prove rockier.
The film follows her sad struggle throughout the engagement.
Her outlook brightens, albeit temporarily, when young lover Mickey Deans (Finn Whittrock), who will become Judy’s fifth husband, visits.
Some of what transpires is lackluster melodrama, and the 1930s flashbacks that connect past and present often feel contrived. At the MGM studio, teenage Judy (Darci Shaw) is given diet pills and sleeping tablets. In 1969, there’s the pill-addicted Judy. Such material, which also features mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), who, presented through a Me Too-era lens, comes across as a creepy intimidator, isn’t insightful enough to merit its amount of screen time.
But Goold, who’s primarily a stage director, possesses a keen sense of the performer psyche and inspires strong acting. Zellweger reigns, and she brings a showbiz legend to stirring life.
The prosthetic enhancements are essential, but Zellweger, more importantly, conveys her character’s emotional turbulence and psychological complexities.
Doing her own singing, she‘s credible. Featured songs include “Get Happy” and, naturally, “Over the Rainbow.”
Elsewhere, in a passage that acknowledges the gay community’s regard for Garland, two fans (Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira) who have experienced homophobia tell Judy that her singing helps them cope. Over badly cooked eggs, Judy establishes a moving rapport with the pair.
Garland’s barbed wit also comes through. At one point, a doctor asks Judy if she’s been taking anything for depression. “Four husbands,” she replies.
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell
Written by: Tom Edge
Directed by: Rupert Goold
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes