The turbulent life of Judy Garland both onscreen and offscreen is the kind of true story worth telling in a biographical film format. And we finally got it in the form of Judy, which marks the English theatre veteran Rupert Goold’s sophomore feature-length directorial effort after the Jonah Hill and James Franco-starred mystery thriller True Story back in 2015.
But instead of a standard A-to-Z biopic, Judy takes place during Garland’s (Renée Zellweger) final year before her eventual death in 1969. Already a train-wreck of a broken woman whose Hollywood fame during her Wizard of Oz heyday has become a distant memory, she has to make ends meet performing at New York’s Palace Theater before landing a deal at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. She is also heavily in debt and forced to leave her two youngest children (Bella Ramsey’s Lorna and Lewin Lloyd’s Joey) in the care of her ex-(third) husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). While she’s trying to pull herself together and battling her own personal demons, Garland meets a handsome musician Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). They eventually get married, even though their blissful love life as husband-and-wife are shortlived.
Although Tom Edge’s adapted screenplay from Peter Quilter’s musical drama End of the Rainbow does cover Garland’s pivotal moments from her dire financial situations and drug-fueled problems to her troubled marriage to Mickey Deans, Judy is pretty much a standard-issue biopic. Rupert Goold’s direction is nothing particularly remarkable but adequate enough in a workmanlike manner.
While the movie may feel like a missed opportunity that deserved something better, at least Rupert Goold made the right choice of enlisting the long-missed Renée Zellweger to play the title role. In fact, she’s the one who helps elevate Judy from a total mediocrity with her overall committed performance. She even bears an uncanny resemblance to the late singer and actress. And most of all, Zellweger goes as far as inhabiting the role deeply from capturing Garland’s body language and mannerisms to vocal performances. The latter particularly impresses me the most since Zellweger actually sings in Judy with no lip-synching or camera tricks whatsoever. Whether she sings “The Trolley Song” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” or crooning “By Myself” on stage, Zellweger truly owns the show.
As for the rest of the cast, Jessie Buckley delivers strong support as Garland’s personal assistant Rosalyn Wilder while Richard Cordery made quite a lasting impression in his otherwise limited appearance as the controversial MGM studio mogul Louis B. Mayer.