Directed By: Fred Zinnemann
Written By: Alvin Sargent (based on the book Pentimento by Lillian Hellman)
Starring: Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards
Julia is a film with a confused identity. It attempts to balance two key relationships and an espionage-like middle act, with all three narrative paths clumsily stepping on each other’s toes. It’s a confusion perhaps fitting of Lillian Hellman’s autobiographical subject matter, which has had its veracity come into heavy dispute over the decades.
The film Fred Zinnemann’s prolific awards nominee calls to mind is 1965’s Doctor Zhivago, with both narratives detailing a central love story set against a violent and tumultuous backdrop. David Lean’s epic detailed a romance amongst the chaotic Russian revolution. Zinnemann’s film brings us a friendship (although one with lusty undertones) situated amongst pre World War 2 Europe. Although it is the relationship that is the salient point of both films, it’s as a snapshot of the peril of their setting and time that Doctor Zhivago and Julia make their mark. Julia is a well produced film, one which brings its period to life with fine strokes of its brush and one which succinctly captures the unease of an increasingly hateful Germany and Austria. But as a portrait of something more personal, it leaves us with little we can say we’ve learnt. If Zinnemann and writer Alvin Sargent had limited their scope, perhaps they could’ve cultivated more emotional detail.
The chief subject matter revolves around Lillian Hellman’s friendship with her companion from youth, Julia (played by Oscar winning Vanessa Redgrave.) In adulthood the two have become separated by the continents; Lilly fights writer’s block en route to finishing her first hit play The Children’s Hour back in America, while Julia’s medical studies take her to Vienna, where she becomes a figurehead of the anti-fascist movement.
Zinnemann himself would question the story’s veracity, later labelling the real life Hellman as a phoney character. Could this explain the timidity with which the director delves into the relationship? One which is so meagrely and indirectly grazed upon that it struggles to justify its centrality in the script? It’s a bond which registers as more illusory than palpable. Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps it’s better that Julia be understood as an enigma, as to convey the effect that mere impressions can have in shaping our lives, as Lilly lives with Julia omnipotently hovering over her. But this doesn’t rectify our feeling completely uninvolved and at sea as the story unravels.
Sargent and Zinnemann fall into that dreaded cinematic pit trap of telling without showing. We’d be near uninformed of the friendship if it weren’t for Lilly’s narration, and we so seldom see the bond in action that by the time the two finally reunite in Berlin, there is little catharsis to speak of and no dramatic weight to boast. In spite of Lilly’s weeping, the whole narrative is handled so impersonally, to the point that we begin to wonder if Julia is really worth all of Lilly’s heartache.
Indeed the ostensible relationship is completely overwhelmed by another relationship in the film, that of Lillian and Dashiell Hammett (played by Jason Robards.) The dichotomy of these characters is a fascinating one. Hammett is both a harsh mentor and a lover to Lillian; his uncompromising, blunt tone as he revises her work is at once punishing and parental. These moments, contained to a beachhouse as Lillian tortures herself trying to force out her hit play, are the film’s most involving. There’s a fire to this relationship, a complexity that is demonstrated rather than dictated. It’s here that we’re truly learning about Lillian, but these moments are too fleeting. An extended detour in the middle of the picture removes us from this relationship. Lillian is enlisted by Julia, and a cast of secretive cohorts, to smuggle money into Nazi occupied Berlin to liberate hundreds of wrongful prisoners; a treacherous task given Lilly is a Jew. Admittedly, if not taut, there is a tension and air of danger to these quasi espionage sequences. But what is supposed to signpost a growth in Lilly, who through flashback we learn was anxious in youth, feels at odds with the other narrative threads and their more intimate scope. No great meaning can be deduced from the passage, rather it’s just a distraction from the truly interesting narrative that is begging to break free in Julia.
There is a certain humanity to the film, an element supplied by the array of strong performances. Along with Redgrave and her enigmatic performance, Robards would also win an Oscar. He’s terrific as Hammett; a duplicitous role in which he’s authoritative but warm. The anchor though is Fonda who has much to capture. Hellman throughout the film is vulnerable, affectionate and angry and Fonda is always believable in her emotions.
Julia is not without interest, but it’s intriguing to wonder how much weight the film would have if it weren’t for its actors. Given that each individual thread is interesting in its own right, it’s clear that a worthy film is scattered amongst Julia’s disparate pieces. The film is just too confused about which line to pursue to ever build a proper head of steam.