The glossiest of biopics arrives with Judy, Rupert Goold’s adaptation of Peter Quilter’s play The End of the Rainbow that details the final performing days of Judy Garland. In order to prevent homelessness and lose complete custody of her two young children, the faded legend Judy Garland took on headlining a series of concerts in London in the late 60s. The film follows her struggles with stage fright and addictions as she struggles to match her legacy, years of insomnia and anxiety taking its toll on her voice and psyche. It’s a blend of the somber and the splashy, a sometimes inelegant tonal soup that is nevertheless elevated by a transformative performance from Renée Zellweger as Garland in her most tragic days.
Palpably adoring of its subject, Goold assembles a film indebted to the joy that Garland gave as a performer. Its musical sequences satisfy with unashamedly old-fashioned cinematic kineticism, doing right by Garland in how it chases the earnestness of her era of musical moviemaking. Garland’s relationship with her fans (especially the gay ones) is baked into its plot, showing the performer as sustained by her fans as they were by her. The film’s final moments could have played more saccharine if it were not for the film’s insight on how understanding Garland’s relationship with her audience is essential to understanding Garland herself.
Sadly for the film, affection does not always equate to taste. Judy delivers the unfortunate result of heavy fan service and yet laboring too many details known by even the most casual of fans, particularly in its overwrought flashbacks. There is an air of unauthorized biography throughout, needlessly and gauchely laboring the familiar talking points of her early life: the pills fed to her, the psychological abuse, the isolating demands. These sequences lack the humanism of the rest of the film, particularly in its loudly reductive and overly archetypal depiction of the young actress and her prime abuser Louis B. Mayer.
The film’s finer points and clunkier elements become largely at odds, making for a film that is mostly inoffensively bland in its basic biopic framework between flashes of painfully honest emotional intelligence for an enduring legend. But perhaps much of that credit belongs not to Goold’s opulent contextualizing, but to the immersive performance that anchors it.
Judy is a complete triumph for Zellweger, at its best when it gets out of her way. She’s almost ghostly in her ability to externalize Garland’s demons, giving us something painfully spiritually exact in the Garland we remember. It’s one of Zellweger’s most showstopping and emotionally vast creations, a Judy burdened with more sorrow than even the expressive icon could let out, alive and hopeful even as the flames inside her are thumped out.
Adding to the ghostly rendering of the fallen Garland, Zellweger’s performance works in dialogue with the way the actress has been very publicly mistreated, weighted by the expectations of appearance and behavior for women in the spotlight. Thankfully, Zellweger doesn’t always chase outright mimicry, but instead achieves something of deeper meaning with how she makes us think of the similarities between herself and the woman she is portraying. It’s a more layered kind of compassion than the film itself achieves, and it’s the key to what makes Zellweger’s performance ascend.
With Finn Wittrock as Garland’s final husband Mickey Deans and Jessie Buckley as her devoted British wrangler Rosalyn Wilder, the funereal Judy looks at Judy Garland as it is often too heartbreaking to view her. But even though Goold often stifles what is most invigorating about his film, we get the full breadth of a person often reduced to a few points thanks to a sensational star performance.
Judy was screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.