One of the most interesting films screened at the 59th edition of the Valladolid International Film Festival (Official Section) was Miss Julie, adapted by Liv Ullmann from the play by August Strindberg, written in the naturalistic style in 1888. Though the film did not receive any awards, it deserves special attention. Miss Julie is the fifth film directed by the actress, also known as Bergman’s muse. Like Kristin Lavransdatter (adapted from the novel by Sigrid Undset) it is based on a literary work, but the cinematic approach is very different.
In her films Ullmann, who has stayed behind the camera for the past 14 years, explores problems of love and relationships, and Miss Julie can be seen as a summation of her universe. Ullmann maintains an almost absolute fidelity to the play, but subtly alters some features of the narrative, reinforcing the identity, among other resources, using a brief prologue that does not appear in the original work.
The main character, played by Jessica Chastain with the subtlety and depth that the role requires, shows quite naturally the inner vulnerability of an aristocrat’s despotic and capricious personality. Colin Farrell, as the valet John, shows his controlled strength and calculated manipulation with a precise performance, though at times he tends to overact, as in his servile and fearful reaction to his master’s voice or the sight of her boots. Samantha Morton is outstanding as the maid Kathleen, selfless and deeply religious, an abandoned woman who never loses her dignity. Her austere and stern appearance turns out to be a bastion of respect for hierarchy and values, more so than her mistress. We find two forces that share the duality (Chastain, despotism and fragility; Farrell, servility and manipulation), facing a symbol of integrity, whose only option is to leave the stage.
The most striking difference between the script and the original play is that Strindberg allows farmers to come on the scene, have a drink in the kitchen and then leave, whereas in the film echoes of the celebrating group are heard in the room where Julia and her servant John consummate their attraction. He then goes to Kathleen’s room, so she can’t leave and check that Julia was with him.
Looking closely at her actors, Ullmann allows the appreciation of expressive subtleties in their performances. The details of the kitchen (like on stage, the ceiling is not displayed) and a meticulous work with focal lengths aim to detonate the inner conflicts of the characters, not only in the upward spiral of the text but in its reflection of the expressions and gestures. The kitchen, where Julie expresses herself without inhibitions and forgets her education and class, is the fourth protagonist of the film, and her internal contradictions are reflected in an environment that is strange in nature.
Brilliant cinematography by Mikhail Krichman serves Ullmann’s purpose well, wrapping a tangle of actions and vain, illegal or sincere feelings, that we see quite clearly, though with less emotion than we would have liked.
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2014