Friday, 20 November 2015

Miss Julie (1999)

"If they aren't any better than us then what is the point of us striving to better ourselves?"

Miss Julie is a Swedish play written in 1888 by August Strindberg concerning the toxic love between Jean, a servant and the titular Miss Julie, his master's daughter. Despite the play's age and its foreign setting, it remains something of an oft staged favourite in the provincial theatres of the UK, and it's easy to see why; the explicit theme of class warfare and the implicit theme of Darwinism, coupled by Strindberg's naturalistic approach mean that it still has much to say to its contemporary audiences in a country that still feels the harshness of its class divide. It is the antithesis of Downton Abbey.

The play has also been adapted several times for the cinema, and this 1999 adaptation from director Mike Figgis is especially worth watching. Figgis does relatively little in lifting the film from its stage origins - there are no sweeping shots of the Midsummer's Eve lit Swedish landscape or much filler, the whole thing is shot in an obvious studio, which highlights the artificial nature of the painted scenery during the brief sojourns 'outside'  - but what he does do is use the camera in a variety of interesting, intrusive Dogme-like ways to capture the spark and passion between his two leads, Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan. 

I would actually argue that this (along with Paddy Considine's directorial debut Tyrannosaur) is Mullan's finest hour. An actor with a plethora of strong performances behind him, it's no small compliment to claim that he's particularly electrifying here in drawing out the grasping ambitions of his footman, Jean, in contrast with the equally ugly arrogant privilege Burrows displays as Miss Julie. I defy you to try and take your eyes off him and, when Miss Julie comments that his eyes resemble ''burning black coals'' you realise that there is no finer description for Mullan's powerful, unflinching stare. Much comment has been made remarking on the height differences between the willowy Burrows and the diminutive Mullan, but I actually think that that is only fitting for the characters; the upper class lady and the lower class male servant. When he talks of climbing the branches to reach the top of the tree and the golden eggs in the nest he dreams of (a clear metaphor for his desire to become gentry) you can almost see Burrow's statuesque imperious frame as the physical embodiment of that desire, with him climbing up and trampling over her which, as a notion, only adds to the imagery of their hurried, rutting copulation in the larder from which neither character can ever go back. 

In the third role, that of the cook Christine, Maria Doyle Kennedy is just as impressive. Overall, this is a classy adaptation that has the ability to grip the viewer from the off.

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