Twenty-four years have passed since Thaddeus O’Sullivan drew a potential connection between an emergent Northern Irish cinema and those of the countries of Northern Europe, particularly Sweden, with his minimalist December Bride. That Northern Irish cinema, and Irish cinema in general (a distinction is at best difficult), ultimately went the way of largely action comedy thrillers with the likes of Man About Dog and Whole Lotta Sole was a disappointment – not least due to the fact that O’Sullivan’s own subsequent films, particularly Ordinary Decent Criminal, were in much the same vein. Welcome then is the genuine thing, an adaptation from August Strindberg’s Swedish play ‘Miss Julie’, written and directed by Liv Ullmann, one of Ingmar Bergman’s closest collaborators, and produced by and filmed in Northern Ireland – primarily within the grounds of Castle Coole in Enniskillen, Fermanagh. Ultimately, the film is not without its flaws and, like December Bride before it, will most likely prove not to influence a new wave of serious cinema in Northern Ireland.
Set in Ireland in 1890, Miss Julie is a three-hander, which examines the power relations behind both gender and class. Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) is a bored member of the aristocracy, first seen escaping her claustrophobic country house via a drawing room window only to wander within the walls of her estate, who finds some small respite in the classless freedom of the celebrations of Midsummer Night. However, her openness is treated with unease by her servant John (Colin Farrell) and cook Kathleen (Samantha Morton), who have some secrets of their own.
One immediate criticism of Miss Julie that has been thrown around is its apparent staginess. This is not a fair complaint, given that several films are just as stagey without equal criticism i.e. 12 Angry Men and because the film’s aesthetics have a purpose. The film is powerfully claustrophobic, intimately revealing the stagnancy of both sides of the class divide. Julie has more societal rules restraining her than John or Kathleen, though they are trapped within the narrow confines of their station. John and Kathleen are deeply terrified of the apparently unhinged Julie, whose willingness to ignore class puts them at risk of ridicule and dismissal. During the first half of the film, it is Julie who appears to be in control, using the authority and respect due her because of her place in the world against both Kathleen and John, who can only meekly obey and respectfully protest. John reveals that he was deeply in love with her when he was a child, his talk eloquent of the limits imposed on a young working class boy before he can even understand them. This breaks through Julie’s cruel exterior and they finally (albeit joylessly) consummate their relationship – Ullmann fading to black, acknowledging both their need for privacy and emphasising the obvious risk and pain that this lovemaking will immediately entail. This handling is reminiscent of Tolstoy’s similar ellision of the affair in ‘Anna Karenina.’
The second half of the film reveals then that, after sex, the power relations in the house shift to favour John. Though Julie still has her class against him, he now has a moral superiority (in 1890 terms) since he has degraded himself less than she. It is now his turn to be cruel and to threaten. The rest of the film details these three characters’ attempts to come to terms with their social, sexual and class transgressions.
Ultimately the film is about the various ways that each character is trapped and how they deal with it. The conversation regularly shifts as each character achieves a feeling of superiority over the others only for some other concern to bring them right back down again. Kathleen, a working class woman, is unexpectedly the most staunchly conservative with regards to the class system. However, there is an interesting shift towards the end when we realize that her devoutly-held faith is what gives her a feeling of self-satisfied superiority and complacency, since Jesus had said that the last will be first and the first last.
The film concludes then with Kathleen going to mass to pray for normalcy, John shaving and putting back on the uniform of his class and heartlessly encouraging Julie – the ultimate transgressor, against both her class and her sex – to cut her wrists. This she does by a river.
The original play was written by August Strindberg, who holds a central influence in Swedish theatre and cinema – this film indeed has a Bergman feel, which must mean that Bergman has a Strindberg feel. Liv Ullmann presents the play critically, revealing both the stultifying values of the time that the play criticizes and also those that the play may uphold. The film’s final shot, in which Julie lies dead in the river, could intentionally or unintentionally recall John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia and could intentionally or unintentionally be pointing to an inherent sexism and patriarchal hegemony in Western culture in general, then and, quite possibly, now. Equally the film’s late examination of Kathleen’s faith reveals that faith to be just as self-serving as the rules of class which give the aristocracy their place in the world – if not one of the primary forces for keeping the working classes in their place. Ullmann’s film has an intriguingly critical and open quality that all of these criticisms can be inferred without the reading feeling too close.
The film has a couple of great moments. The film is bookended with the image of flower petals drifting along a stream. We first see this from the perspective of the young Miss Julie after she has escaped from the confines of the house (possibly for the first time) and again later when Miss Julie is about to kill herself. Initially a symbol of the wish for freedom, the second time, however, Ullmann shows us the leaves getting stuck up against some jutting rocks, an eloquent and quietly heart-breaking evocation of the impossibility of even this small, vicarious escape. In another moment, Julie invites John upstairs. He follows her but suddenly stands still, as if he cannot physically cross the threshold between the servant’s quarters and the rest of the house without his livery – a nice Bunuelian touch. Also, look out for the moment when Kathleen rushes to the back entrance of the house to lock it against a marauding band of revellers – a powerfully haunting and deeply cinematic sequence. And the moment when Kathleen leaves the house for Mass – betrayed by John – and stands out in the bleak sunrise and starts to cry. Ullmann keeps the camera behind her and we can infer Kathleen’s tears from the slight shudders of her body, but it is an equally powerful and emotive scene, all the more so for its sheer economy.
That said, there is no getting beyond the fact that Chastain and Farrell’s performances are not particularly great. Both of their accents falter – Chastain doesn’t seem to be going for one at all whereas Farrell’s Northern Irish accent is lost in the emotional scenes. Neither performance is good enough to hold the film. This may be primarily a fault in the script. The dialogue feels a little over-written and a lot of the lines are difficult to believe and Chastain and Farrell definitely have difficulty making them work. Equally the always altering power relations between the two of them are too sudden and apparently without transition or cause, making it easy to get a little lost with the characters. It often has the feel of a rambling monologue (or soliloquy) rather than an authentic conversation. Sadly, all of this means that a large part of this otherwise powerful and maybe even excellent film just does not work.
Miss Julie then is far from a great film, though it has a seriousness of purpose and an engaging multiplicity of meaning and some unforgettably evocative moments. It does not ultimately work because it is badly written and overlong, but, for the moments where it grabs you, it is the real deal and Northern Irish cinema, if not European cinema in general, needs much more of this.