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From "Pentimento," the memoirs of late playwright Lillian Hellman, JULIA covers those years in the 1930s when Lillian attained fame with the production of her first play "The Children's Hour" on Broadway. Not surprisingly, it centers on Lillian's relationship with her lifelong friend, Julia. It is a relationship that goes beyond mere acquaintance and one for which the word "love" seems appropriate. While Julia attends the University in Vienna, studying with such luminaries as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, Lillian suffers through revisions of her play with her mentor and sometimes lover Dashiell Hammett at a New England beach house. After becoming a celebrated playwright, Lillian is invited to a writers' conference in Russia. Julia, having taken up the battle against fascism, enlists Lillian to smuggle money through Nazi Germany which will assist in the Anti-Fascist cause. It is a dangerous mission especially for a Jewish intellectual on her way to communist Russia. During a brief... Written by
Mark Fleetwood <email@example.com>
The great thing about the more liberated cinema we got in the 60s and 70s, was not just that it could be more frank about sex, violence and the like, but that stories of a bleaker nature could be told without the need for a cosy happy ending. Not that the glee and glamour of classic Hollywood is something I disapprove of far from it but cinema, like all things, needs a bit of the darkness to make the light worthwhile. With this adaptation of Lillian Hellmond's semi-fictional memoir, we have one of the rare masterpieces of harrowing cinema.
To make something like this work, you need a really superlative cast, and fortunately Julia features some of the best of their era. Jane Fonda is one of those performers who just has such an effortless realism about her. She gives an impression that she is really living that life, more convincingly than the finest method actors, and yet she is also as captivating as the most theatrical of players. Maximilian Schell gives a short but memorable performance, putting on an act of tender shyness, beneath which lies a real sense of urgency. Jason Robards gives a kind of stable anchor to the movie, confidently playing the one major character slightly to one side of events. Vanessa Redgrave gives a delightfully mysterious turn, with this continual eager, earnest look in her eyes, as if she is perpetually on the brink of laughter or tears. And this is very apt for a picture of such uncertainty and emotional turmoil.
This was one of the final pictures of director Fred Zinnemann, an old pro whose quiet, thoughtful style had survived amid the new generation of filmmakers. And he shows the benefit of years of experience. Never afraid to break the cinematic conventions, Zinnemann opens the first flashback with three close-ups, the young Julia, the young Lily and then a profile of Julia's grandmother. This odd sequence of shots nevertheless engages us instantly, impressing the characters upon us and, with the shot of the grandmother, giving us a hint of her character and the context these girls are in. In contrast with those heartfelt close-ups, at other times his camera is agonizingly far from the action. When Fonda visits Julia at the hospital, the camera stays at the foot-end of the bed, refusing to give us a closer shot of Redgrave as would be conventional. Zinnemann is also very good at covertly planting a thought in our heads with something that looks innocuous. For example, when Fonda wakes up and notices Julia is gone, a soldier walks across the shot, giving us the idea that perhaps something sinister is going on, without actually stating anything.
But none of this would be anything without the right story. Hellmand's work, adapted for the screen by Alvin Sargent, is simply exquisite. The flashback structure, so often a cliché, does not just serve to give the story background, it supports the main line of narrative. Lily's reminiscences have such passion and life that it seems Julia is saved through them, as if past and present could almost co-exist. Julia is a story of devastating effect on many levels. It is the telling of a horrendous chapter of history on a most personal, intimate level, a painful tale of loss and regret, and yet also one of the most moving studies of love and friendship ever created.
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