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    Judy Hits All the Notes and Zellweger Masks Film’s Flaws

    By Gary Kramer–

    As Judy Garland, in the last year of her life, Renée Zellweger gives a knockout performance in Judy, an uneven biopic that focuses on her London concerts six months before her death.

    At the start of director Rupert Goold’s absorbing drama, young Garland (Darci Shaw) is being told by Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) that she is special because of her voice. The voice is “her gift” and it “gives people dreams.” When Judy gives her first performance at the Talk of the Town cabaretin London—a show-stopping rendition of “By Myself”—Judy shows the power of that voice. (Zellweger did all of her own singing and is even releasing an album of Garland covers in conjunction with the film.)

    But while she can be incandescent on stage, Garland is a mess off stage. The film’s first half hour has her fighting her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their kids, being homeless—she is denied her hotel room for being in arrears on payment—and remains unemployed because of her reputation for being both unreliable and uninsurable. She takes the opportunity to perform in London as a way of earning income to get her kids back and her career back on track.

    Judy, which was written by Tom Edge, who adapted Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, wisely focuses on this period of her life, and that provides the opportunity to illuminate her psychological state. Garland’s loneliness is beautifully depicted in shots of her alone in her dressing room after a performance, or fitfully trying to sleep in a king-sized hotel bed. Goold creates distinct visual styles for the on stage, off stage, and backstage, as well as the flashback scenes that show Garland as a youth on the MGM lot.

    The episodes from her youth — she defiantly takes a bite out of a hamburger or goes swimming when she is not supposed to—reveal aspects of her life that echo in her later years. Even if these scenes illustrate how Garland was beaten down as a child, and account for her difficulties as an adult, they show a fearless Garland, not someone fragile or vulnerable. It feels like a misstep, perhaps. Moreover, while these episodes emphasize Garland’s struggle with diet pills, her food issues, and her sleeping problems, they seem to be included for the benefit of those viewers who don’t know Garland’s troubled history.

    Better are scenes of 47-year-old Garland’s anxiety, as when she expresses her all-too-real concern, “What if I can’t do it again?” after a successful opening night. Garland’s lack of self-esteem is a theme throughout Judy, and one of the film’s most touching sequences has Garland meeting two fans, Stan (Daniel Cerqueira) and Dan (Andy Nyman), by the stage door after a show and going back to their flat for a meal. Their exchange, where the two older gay men talk with their icon, eat an omelet, and even play cards, is truly lovely. This scene becomes even more poignant when Garland sings a slowed-down version of “Get Happy,” which is so heartfelt, it may jerk tears from viewers.

    Renée Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in Judy (Photo Courtesy of LD Entertainment)

    Judy should have more quietly powerful moments like this one. Instead, an embarrassing incident—in which the performer behaves badly in front of an audience—is shocking, but unemotional. Likewise, Judy’s relationship with the much younger Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), is more peculiar than satisfying as portrayed here.

    Some of the film’s episodes, like the ones with Mickey, simply lack energy. A doctor’s visit, where Garland is told that she needs to take better care of herself, comes off flat. In contrast, Garland is empathetic when she’s responding to a TV show host’s invasive question with candor and sass. Her call to her daughter Lorna (Bella Ramsey), during a particular bout of homesickness, is also affecting.

    But Judy really dazzles during its musical numbers, which include a fantastic performance of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow,” which is performed in a scene that is simultaneously corny and forceful.

    Zellweger throws herself into the title role and she transcends playing Garland, never falling into camp, or mimicking the singer. She also captures Garland’s mannerisms without making them seem fake. Zellweger’s expressions reveal the fragility of her nature beautifully; she can look scared and apprehensive one minute, and then is all smiles the next.

    Judy is all about Garland’s highs and lows. There is real strength when she belts out “For Once in My Life,” deliriously happy with her new husband Mickey, and there is real emotion when she delights in eating a piece of cake during a celebratory moment. However, some of “Judy” feels underdeveloped, as when it depicts how the performer’s addictions took a toll on her life and career, especially given the emphasis on her backstory.

    Judy hits all the notes, but it is Zellweger’s mesmerizing turn that covers up the film’s flaws.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer