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August Strindberg is one of Sweden's most important writers from the late
19th and early 20th centuries. Miss Julie' is one of Strindberg's plays
written around the turn of the century. This is a powerful story of anger,
hate, lust and class envy. The play revolves around two main characters.
Jean (Peter Mullan) is a footman, a servant to a Count in northern Sweden in
the late 1890's. Julie (Saffron Burrows) is the Count's shrewish and self
Jean is tormented by his attraction to Julie and his simultaneous hatred of
her class. The play focuses on an encounter they have one midsummer's night
in the servants' kitchen. Jean takes his resentment out on Julie with
sarcastic remarks and open disdain for the gentry of which she is a part.
She responds sometimes docilely and contritely, and at others with
condescending vitriol. This open antipathy belies their sexual attraction
and the embattled conversation leads to a seduction, which is really less of
a seduction than a mutual ravishment. Afterward, as Julie is more
vulnerable, Jean attempts to manipulate her into stealing money from her
father and running away with him so he can indulge his secret ambition to
own a hotel and become a part of the upper class he now so despises. The
film ends on a decided downbeat, which is no surprise given the characters'
deeply disturbed personalities.
The story is intense, intelligent and visceral. It is has more the feel of
a play (one set, crude props, only one or two costumes per actor). However,
though the acting is more that of a theatrical production, it is shot more
like a modern motion picture. Director Mike Figgis does a good job with the
camera, using some innovative techniques to keep it from looking like you
are watching a play through a window.
The story is likely to be appreciated by only a very small audience. Not
only is it very dark, but all the characters are distasteful. Jean is
angry, sardonic, obnoxious and manipulative. Julie is shrewish,
condescending, self hating, and insecure. There is really no one with whom
the audience can identify. This renders the entire story potent but
extremely unpleasant. Also, it deals with themes that were mainstream in
1900, but are generally beyond the ken of today's audiences.
The actors were fabulously cast and the acting superb. Peter Mullen is
short, craggy and Napoleonic, while Saffron Burrows is tall, willowy, and
graceful. Besides being well cast for their stations, she was at least four
inches taller than he, and this worked well with all the allusions to the
aristocracy being `up there' and the servants being `down
Peter Mullen played the part flat out. He was pugnacious and full of
indignant rage, envy and spurn. The acclaim Saffron Burrows received for
this performance was well deserved. She handled the difficult range of
emotions deftly, moving effortlessly from whimpering child to haughty bitch
and all the complex self torturing emotions in between.
I rated this film an 8/10. This is not a film for everyone. In fact it is
a film that most people will probably dislike. I would recommend it for the
ardent theatergoer who is a battle tested veteran of microscopic character
studies involving flawed characters. To like this film you have to be one
who can appreciate trying and disturbing emotional portrayals without a need
to like any of the characters. For everyone else, it will probably be a
harrowing and disagreeable experience.
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