Review: ‘Miss Julie’ flops at Chicago International Film Festival

Plagued with over-the-top acting and a petty plot, “Miss Julie” is a Victorian love story that fails to be enchanting. (Photo courtesy of "Miss Julie")
Plagued with over-the-top acting and a petty plot, “Miss Julie” is a Victorian love story that fails to be enchanting. (Photo courtesy of “Miss Julie”)

Do you want to see some exciting, gripping, boldly innovative film at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival? Looking for thrilling stories of love, betrayal, vengeance or other stirring adjectives? Wishing you could’ve attended opening night of CIFF and seen the movie, Liv Ullmann’s “Miss Julie” which was shown during it and was billed as most of these? Don’t be upset, because “Miss Julie” was none of the above.

Full disclosure, I have never seen an Ingmar Bergman film, which perhaps would have helped me to the idea of “Miss Julie.” Director Ullmann was a former muse actor of Bergman’s, a Swedish filmmaker known for crafting cerebral dramas ahead of their time in the middle of the last century. I assume Ullmann took it upon herself to make something of an homage to Bergman, and adapt this period piece play based in “a country estate in Ireland, 1890.” To her credit, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson had directed this adaptation of a supremely melodramatic play. No amount of explosions or blood and death could’ve saved “Miss Julie,” and it already has some blood and death in it.

Part of the trouble is that so much of the drama is internal, which doesn’t bode well for the visual medium of the screen. Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell, the two central characters in “Miss Julie,” do their darnedest to bring that drama out into the open, with over-the-top theatricality and expressive delivery. Credit is due to them for accomplishing the feat of making this movie at least passable. The onus of the criticism, then, should focus on writer and director Ullmann, who decided to bring stage acting to film, which has always been notoriously fraught with problems.

The main problem is that it looks bad — ridiculous even. To make the conflict palpable to film audiences, the actors must be emotive, and they were. But on film, that emotion does not translate into entertainment. It reads as what it looks like: ridiculous. Imagine a scene you may have experienced in your own life, one where you might be complaining to your friend about how a guy or girl is romantically out of your reach. To you, this situation is dire and very emotional. To your friend, this might seem just as important, maybe a little less than you do. Now imagine if someone were to film it and make a movie out of this conversation, and you get a sense of how petty the entire plot of “Miss Julie” is.

Was it just the circumstance in which I saw this movie that caused it to fall flat as a piece of printer paper? My press pass for CIFF, while allowing me access to a few select screenings before the festival actually opened, does not allow me to attend any actual festival events, including the opening night gala at which “Miss Julie” premiered, and where Ullmann and Farrell were in attendance. At least not without paying the $45 base ticket price. Perhaps if I had been there and allowed myself to be swept up in the magic of the silver screen, “Miss Julie” wouldn’t have seemed like such a “Victorian first-world problems” movie, but something greater, even transcendental. Instead, as I sat in a cold, barely occupied theater watching this, all I could feel was tired.