There are essentially two methods to plotting a biographical picture. The first, and most popular, is a ‘whole of career’ approach: the film tracks the life and development of its protagonist over a period of years, or even decades. The second approach is to identify a specific period in a protagonist’s life, usually near its end, that forms the most dramatically interesting part of it. It is a less common approach all told, but when written well can produce a much tighter, more interesting drama. It is the approach taken in Rupert Goold’s 2019 biographical film Judy, which picks up the troubled actress and singer Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) in the last year of her life.
1968. Divorced, broke, and all-but-banned from Hollywood, Judy Garland finds her only hope of repairing her life is to undertake a live music residency at a London theatre. Forced to leave her children behind in the USA, and entranced by a new romance, Garland tries to get her career back in order.
It feels oddly appropriate that Judy, a film about a fallen talent struggling to make a comeback, should star Renée Zellweger. A career that bounced from one success to the next, in the likes of Dazed and Confused, Jerry Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Chicago, seemed to unexpectedly tail off in the mid-2000s – culminating in a six-year retirement from acting altogether after 2010. A 2016 comeback centred on a second Bridget Jones sequel, without much of note since. Suddenly there was Judy, and a performance that was met with an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and even a Grammy nomination.
All of the accolades seem well-deserved. Judy captures Zellweger at a new height of creativity and talent. Despite previous acclaim, including an earlier Oscar win for Cold Mountain (2003), I have personally never warmed to Zellweger’s acting. Her work here is a full measure beyond anything she has delivered on-screen before. Her performance as Garland is in turns tragic, pathetic, funny, defiant, and ultimately deeply sympathetic. With the help of a string of well-developed flashback scenes (featuring an excellent Darcy Shaw as the teenage Garland), Zellweger presents a defiant, brilliant star whose past abuses and tragedies have created a fractured and flawed woman desperate to shine and desperate to be loved.
It is comparatively easy to praise actors for playing real-life figures, because unlike with fictional characters we have the real-life person with whom we can compare the performance. Zellweger is remarkable in replicating Garland’s mannerisms and cadence, which is often enough for a performance like this to gain accolades, but she also delivers great depth and sensitivity. It is not simply getting an audience to like her character, or to sympathise with her, but to actually understand her.
Strong character work is combined with a sensitive screenplay here, and thankfully also a broad avoidance of most of the stereotypes that come with these kinds of biopics. While the film boasts a range of excellent supporting talent, including Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, and Jessie Buckley, in the end this is Zellweger’s movie and her achievement. It deserves to be.