This thoroughly enjoyable film is an adaptation of Somerset Maughm?s equally enjoyable novella, Theater. Set in London, between the world wars, the film is about the life and loves of Julia Lambert. Julia (played by Annette Bening) is a stage actress at the zenith of her career. She is married to her manager (and first love), Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons). The two own a successful theater company, together with a financial partner, hilariously played by Miriam Margolyes. Julia and Michael have a handsome son on the cusp of adulthood. Julia appears to have all that a woman could ask for.
The trouble is that Julia is tired, bored, unfulfilled and in desperate need of a change. There are a number of factors contributing to this crisis ? her marriage has evolved into a largely platonic relationship, she bitterly resents the regimen she must follow to maintain her looks (her idea of nirvana is eating all the potatoes she wants), the success of the theater company is all too dependent upon Julia?s star performances, and she is tired of always acting. Whenever Julia is involved in a serious conversation, she starts acting ? she barnstorms her way through conversations by reciting stage monologues. The theater has taken over her life. It is time for her to be Julia.
Along comes a handsome young American fan. He is both persistent and aggressive. Julia should know better, but she has a diva-sized ego which is feeding off of the young fan?s attention. Julia is soon over her head in a relationship with the fan. This mid-life affair jeopardizes her marriage and her relationship with her son, and distracts her from her theatrical performances. To make matters worse, the young fan is trifling with Julia. She is nothing more than a conquest.
Bening is an absolute joy to watch in this film. She has a stage voice and stage presence which reminds me of the great actresses from the first half of the twentieth century. Her stage voice in this film is reminiscent of Zoe Caldwell and Dame Judith Anderson. Her upper crust British accent is spot on. Juliet Stevenson, who plays Julia?s dresser, adds depth to this film. She plays a servant/confidant/advisor to Bening?s Julia. The viewer is left with the sense that Julia would be lost without her.
This film is also about marriage. Julia has an unconventional, ?open? marriage. Julia and her husband clearly love each other; their lives revolve around each other. The passion has long gone out of their marriage, but they are not about to let that get in the way of their long and happy relationship. This film?s honest portrayal of a good marriage, with all of its flaws, complexities and coping mechanisms, is refreshing.
The climax in Somerset Maughm?s novella is subtle. In the book, Julia?s tour-de-force performance is only briefly referred to, and then only after the fact. In the film, viewers actually get to see Julia in her performance of a lifetime. This is one of the few film adaptations where I?ve felt without a doubt that the movie improves upon the book.