Produced by a Canadian immigrant (Robert Lantos), directed by a Hungarian (Istvan Szabo), but written by a Brit (Ronald Harwood), based on a novel by Somerset Maugham and set in and around London in the 1930s, Being Julia is a quintessential star vehicle. That star is, of course, American: Annette Bening.
Ms Bening is Julia Lambert, the toast of Shaftesbury Avenue, after yet another triumph on the London stage. A diva in the best possible sense, Julia is at the top of her game… and ruefully aware that it can only be downhill from here. Her marriage to producer Jeremy Irons is an amicable sham. She has nothing left to prove professionally, and maybe not so much more to give either. Then she's swept off her feet by an ardent young American suitor, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), and suddenly she feels like a new woman. Until, that is, he dumps her for a pushy young starlet glorying in the name of Avice (Lucy Punch). It's a fool move on his part.
Ronald Harwood wrote The Dresser of course, and everyone involved knows the theatrical world backwards – it probably hasn't changed that much since the 1930s either. Unfortunately the familiarity extends to the audience, because there's nothing here that we haven't seen before. Being Julia is a Sunday afternoon wallow of a picture – its company, which can be brittle and amusing, but also a bit wearing if you're not in the mood. While an embarrassing surfeit of good British thesps go through their paces in roles barely worthy of them (Irons, Juliet Stevenson, Miriam Margolyes and Michael Gambon for instance) you wonder if Shaun Evans had to be quite so colourless in the role of the American bounder – wouldn't the film have had a bit more passion if we actually cared about the romance?
Sluggishly structured, such plot as there is is all an elaborate set-up for the last act, when Madame Julia gets her revenge. Even this splendidly malicious coup de théâtre has been done before, and with more style too (I will refer you once more to the sublime French classic, Les Enfants du Paradis), but Bening milks it for all its worth – including that Golden Globe which now sits on her mantlepiece – and quite right too. Without a divine diva at its centre, this would be a sorry sight indeed.