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A protégé of the famous acting coach the late Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon), by 1938, Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) is London's leading lady, but she is living in a platonic limbo with her husband, impresario Michael (Jeremy Irons). When young American Tom (Shaun Evans) arrives and seeks work at the theatre, flattering her with his adulation and infatuation - Julia responds, expecting the romance to snap her out of her midlife crisis. But Tom soon finds a pretty young blonde actress Avice (Lucy Punch) more suitable to his age, even using his connections with Julia and Michael to find Avice a role in their next play. When Julia discovers that Michael and Avice are also having an affair, she shows just what a great actress she really is, on an opening night none of them will forget.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This triumphant production achieves everything the filmmakers set out to do, delivering juicy comedy and profound character study in a gripping and engaging film. In his notes to this film, director István Szabó remarks that it is only films that can show us a living human face in close up, "showing the birth of an emotion or a thought and its changing - mirrored in the expression." Using this crucial differentiator of film from all other art forms, Szabó makes maximum use of the resources at his disposal: a masterful cinematographer in fellow Hungarian, his much admired, long time collaborator, Lajos Koltai, and a superb cast, led by the extraordinary Annette Bening. All of them provide Szabó the faces and the emotions he needs, ranging from adoration, lust (several kinds), admiration, platonic love, romantic love, laughter, anger, sorrow and revenge.

And as Szabo emphasises on the DVD's commentary track which he shares with Bening and Irons, his film "has nothing to do with" either Somerset Maugham's novella and a play (he never saw it) nor the earlier French/German film version with Lily Palmer and Charles Boyer (which they hadn't seen either). But considering the story is set in the theatre and there is much stage acting involved, the biggest challenge for the filmmakers was how to treat Bening's performance when she's on stage. Szabo and Bening finally settled for something between the grandness of theatre performance and the smallness of the big screen.

This is an intelligent and informative commentary from three people who know what they're talking about. And to their great credit, they don't babble on if they have nothing useful to say. It's the best and most important bonus on the DVD; the Behind the Scenes feature is a fairly pedestrian production press kit, but the Making of is a more organic six minute collage of footage shot during filming, starting with interiors in Budapest and on to London for exteriors. We see how Szabo works (not he never yells 'Action!' He says 'Please'.) And for a change, the deleted scenes are worth seeing 0- there are four, and the first two are especially recommended.

Bening, supple and sensational here, creates a complete and riveting Julia, the 40 year old actress made increasingly vulnerable by the cruelty of time passing, with her passions cruising for a chance to uncoil. And young Tom steps up to the plate, barely older than Julia's son Roger (Tom Sturridge). Their passionate, laughter-filled affair takes place discreetly, but such is Julia's joy, those around her can't help but notice her glow, shine and float. Is this the same Julia who was pleading with her husband just days before to close the play so she can take a long rest?

Julia is herself a little surprised and taken aback by the affair, but she is never too shocked to stop it. Her wiles - the same wiles that kept the friendly Lord Charles from going abroad so he could amuse her - are powerful threads of silk that she weaves around her prey.

When Tom's fancy is taken with a young blonde, Julia's jealousy ignites a wicked plan - and the result is the dramatic and emotional payoff that Szabó structures carefully, from Ronald Harwood's brilliantly handled adaptation. Michael Gambon is splendid as the memory of late acting coach Jimmy Langton, whose gruff, earthy guidance comes back to happily haunt Julia whenever she needs that inner voice to egg her on.

There are layers of truth and meaning to be found in every scene, character revelations of terrific observation, a marvellous mood, admirably judged pace and several haunting images - and a teasing dash of ambiguity about Michael's acquiescence in her wicked plan. But above all, it's Bening's Julia who will remain in your consciousness as the woman whose survival in her own image requires a tour de force performance - on and off stage.

Published August 18, 2005

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CAST: Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Bruce Greenwood, Miriam Margolyes, Juliet Stevenson, Shaun Evans, Lucy Punch, Tom Sturridge, Maury Chaykin, Sheila McCarthy, Rosemary Harris, Rita Tushingham and Michael Gambon

PRODUCER: Robert Lantos

DIRECTOR: István Szabó

SCRIPT: Ronal Harwood (novel 'Theatre' by Somerset Maugham)


EDITOR: Susan Shipton

MUSIC: Mychael Danna


RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes



PRESENTATION: Widescreen 1:85:1/16:9 enhanced; DD 5.1

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by Istvan Azabo, Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons; deleted scenes; behind the scenes featurette with cast and crew interviews; trailer; English and Hindi subtitles

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: August 17, 2005

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