Back in 2004, long before YouTube, I had a mild obsession with the web cartoon “Strindberg and Helium.” In it, a caricature of the Swedish playwright/philosopher August Strindberg would opine about his exquisite misery, while a cute anthropomorphized balloon named Helium would lovingly mock him. The cartoons are still hilarious. Strindberg’s prose is morose and serious, so it takes daring and talent in order for any Strindberg adaptation to achieve the intended effect. Liv Ullman, a longtime partner and collaborator of Ingmar Bergman, has more potential than anyone to modernize his plays. Unfortunately, her effort Miss Julie plays out like the Strindberg caricature, except much longer and without any cute balloons.
Ullman transposes Sweden for Ireland, and still sets the action in a largely abandoned mansion over mid-summer night. There is no political or allegorical reason to choose Ireland over Sweden, so her reasons are borne out of her casting choices. Colin Farrell, an actor who’s most comfortable in his native accent, stars as John, an overeducated valet in the mansion. His fiancée is the dowdy Christine (Samantha Morton), who also works in the house. They’re obsessed with Julie (Jessica Chastain), the young woman of the estate, and she flouts propriety by flirting with John. He tries to resist, eventually succumbing to her charms, and the fallout eventually forces Julie into an alcohol-fueled psychological tailspin.
Originally written in 1888, the play “Miss Julie” has only three characters and a claustrophobic setting. Ullman’s adaptation is faithful, which is another way of saying there’s a whole lot of dialogue. There have been countless successful play adaptation before, but the key is to find something cinematic about the material and go from there. Instead, Ullman films the actors simply as if they’re performing on stage (her only concession is the action moves from one room to another, and sometimes outside). And without much plot, the dialogue goes into circles. There are arguments about misery, shame, sex, and most importantly, whether members a lower economic class can move upward or vice versa. The limits of the film Miss Julie are the limits of a film adaptation: there is something visceral about seeing flesh-and-blood actors verbally assault each on stage. With the separation of a screen, Ullman’s film is tepid and redundant, no matter how much passion her actors put into its tragedy.
The actors, Chastain in particular, veer between histrionics and seething bile. Her Julie starts the film with an intriguing dose of unhinged sexuality; the way she initially dominates John is the most compelling thing that happens. John charms her through surprise: not only does John have a base nature, he’s forceful and articulate, the sort of servant who respects and resents his status simultaneously. Morton’s Christine is there to intervene and cast moral judgment, but Miss Julie is mostly a battle of wills between Farrell and Chastain. Ullman turns the tables so many times that it’s ultimately difficult to see who has the upper hand. Like last year’s August Osage County, Miss Julie is a commitment to highbrow misery, except Letts’ play has tense physicality to it that Strindberg’s does not. The play could be performed without any blocking and achieve the same effect.
“Miss Julie” is a naturalistic play, and with it Strindberg explores the implications of natural selection on humanity, as well as the upstairs/downstairs dynamic. While Strindberg’s work is on the cusp of modernity, more recent examples hit upon similar themes with more verve. Miss Julie is like a somber, dark version of Dowton Abbey, except without any desire to entertain an audience. Circumspect and tedious, it’s the sort of movie that we make fun of when we think of art-house clichés. Ullman filmed Miss Julie in April 2013, more than a year and a half ago, which makes me wonder whether distributors waited until the peak of Jessica Chastain’s prolific streak to drop the film. While it’s sometimes fun to watch her and Farrell spar, it would be more compelling to watch a documentary about their rehearsals with Ullman.