Transporting August Strindberg’s play to colonial Ireland, Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie imbues her underwhelming tale of forbidden love with Swedish style.
Midsummer Night's Dreamby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
What is it about August Strindberg’s naturalistic play about class emancipation and female sexuality that sets pulses racing and hearts ablaze? Barely off the stage since its debut in 1888, with most recently Frédéric Fisbach’s stage production with Juliette Binoche, and already the third cinematic adaptation following Alf Sjöberg’s Cannes Grand Prix winner in 1951 and Mike Figgis’ 1999 film featuring Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan, Liv Ullmann directs her own adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Relocated to colonial Ireland in 1890, Ullmann brings Strindberg’s revolutionary masterpiece back to basics, retranslating the original dialogues and taking its upstairs-downstairs intrigue to the scullery of County Fermanagh’s Castle Coole. And with its copper pots, black iron range, ivory painted walls, blue silk dresses and earthy linens, Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie is an elegant cabinet of Scandinavian style.
It’s Midsummmer’s night, and while her father, the Count, is away, Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) hosts a party. Valet John (Colin Farrell) returns to the kitchen with the Count’s boots for cleaning, where he relates Miss Julie’s behaviour to his fiancée Kathleen (Samantha Morton), who is cooking up a potion for Miss Julie’s dog, made pregnant by the gatekeeper’s mongrel. They open a bottle of the Count’s wine, but soon Miss Julie appears to enquire after her dog. Lingering with the servants, she’s intrigued by John’s education and ambition. But when Kathleen withdraws, John and Miss Julie enter a dangerous power play, as they alternately flirt, resist and give in to their mutual attraction. Fearing Miss Julie’s honour might be damaged if she’s discovered, John hides her in his quarters. Until the intimacy overwhelms them and pushes them both past the point of no return.
Aside from the opening scenes where Julie appears as an auburn-haired Munch-like girl mourning the death of her mother, Liv Ullmann’s adaptation sticks faithfully to Strindberg’s three-man chamber play, keeping its class struggle between clambering ambition and aristocratic worship violently intact. Relocating to the English-owned plantations of Northern Ireland might call for Kristin to be rebaptised as Kathleen or for cinema-goers to question the likelihood of a white night in Ulster, but it’s enough to up the metaphoric bite and add a frisson of colonial politics contemporary with Strindberg’s play. It’s not these adaptations however that create a sense of cinema, and nor does Ullmann aim to contrive one with flashbacks, sweeping camera movements or clever editing. But rather, much like Strindberg’s own naturalistic intentions, it’s in the intimacy of Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography, which lets the script and Ullmann’s stellar cast performances speak for themselves.
With Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell battling it out as noble-born Miss Julie and frustrated domestic John, Miss Julie is perfectly cast. Only, beyond Farrell’s permanently furrowed brows and Chastain’s silent imperiousness, it’s Samantha Morton who steals the show as frumpy third-wheel Kathleen. Perhaps it’s her consummate Irishness as she stands there in her Sunday best ready to go to Church, reminding the others of their hastily abandoned duties. Or maybe it’s her simple gravitas, as she cuts through John’s lackadaisical dreams and Miss Julie’s lofty airs with simple-minded precision, proudly refusing to let order come crashing down about her ears.
Even Samantha Morton’s scene-stealing performance however isn’t enough to save Miss Julie from itself, which while faithfully expounding Strindberg’s dialogues, fails to build much tension – dramatic, sexual or otherwise. The moment where Miss Julie tumbles from her pedestal into John’s bed is more fumbled than momentous, and the performances remain stubbornly theatrical – shy of Strindberg’s intended naturalism and reaching a fever pitch of screeching hysteria too early and from which there’s no way out. But for a play written by a man and often directed by men, Miss Julie is still gripping even after a century. The woman-made pedestal Liv Ullmann has her on might not be quite as high, but still she’s proud, vibrant, vigorous and violent. And ready for a fall.
Miss Julie is released on 4th September 2015 in the UK