James Mottram Rupert Goold's Judy, starring Renée Zellweger.

James Mottram

08 Aug 19

The traditional Hollywood biopic gets a powerful and potent makeover in Rupert Goold's Judy. The Judy in question is the one and only Judy Garland, played sensationally by Renée Zellweger in a leading role destined to become one of the most talked-about this year. We first glimpse Garland as a young actress on the set of The Wizard Of Oz – the timeless classic that made her name and celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. Yet this is no cradle-to-grave story; adapted from Peter Quilty's play End Of The Rainbow, screenwriter Tom Edge (The Crown) shows us Garland 30 years on from playing Oz's Dorothy Gale. 

It's the winter of 1968, and Garland has arrived in London for a series of sell-out performances on stage at the Talk Of The Town nightclub. After a life spent entertaining others, she's been left ravaged by the demands of an unforgiving industry, following nervous breakdowns and a dependency on a cocktail of drugs, from amphetamines to sleeping pills.

After working for 45 of her 47 years, Garland's career had taken its toll on her personal life, too; she has four marriages behind her and three children, including Liza Minnelli, her daughter with her second husband, Vincente Minnelli, the director of one of her most famous films, Meet Me In St. Louis. When we join her in Judy, she is desperate to remain with her children but, as the old adage goes, the show must go on. 

As she strikes up a relationship with Rosalyn Wilder (Wild Rose's Jessie Buckley), the Talk Of The Town's no-nonsense production assistant, whose job it is to get the fragile Garland on stage every night, there will be visits from her third husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), her former manager and the man she stayed with the longest, as well as Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who would become her fifth and last husband in the final months of her life. 

With 1960s London brilliantly evoked by production designer Kave Quinn (famed for working with Danny Boyle on Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, and A Life Less Ordinary), the story also recognises Garland as a longstanding icon of the LGBTQ+ community. Some of the most touching scenes come as Garland meets two adoring gay fans, including Andy Nyman (writer-director-star of 2017's Ghost Stories), who warmly invite her back home.

Arriving a year after Bradley Cooper's remake of A Star Is Born – the 1954 version won Garland an Oscar nomination – Judy undoubtedly taps into a resurgent audience love for showbiz-musical stories. But Goold's film, thanks to a monumental performance from Zellweger, goes far beyond that. Already famed for her transformative turns in the Bridget Jones films, her work here is on another level. Heart-wrenching and soul-shattering, it's like Zellweger leaves a piece of herself behind on the screen. In particular, the performance sequences at the Talk Of The Town are quite simply astounding, as Zellweger delivers some of Garland's most famous tunes (the forthcoming Decca-released soundtrack album, featuring 12 tracks sung by Zellweger, is also destined to become a best-seller). 

For all of Garland's troubles, this is the story of a survivor, not a victim, a woman who picks herself up, dusts herself down and continues in her quest for love. The result is an emotional volcano of a film that, as it erupts, touches the heart very deeply indeed. By the finale, as Garland sings to the crowd, there won't be a dry eye in the house.   

Film released Wed 2 Oct.