In 2004, no star shined brighter in Hollywood than Renée Zellweger. Fresh off her third Oscar nomination – and first win, for civil war drama Cold Mountain – Zelly’s box office-breaking powers were at their height. Roles in Chicago, Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jones’s Diary had turned her into America’s sweetheart, Rodeo Drive’s girl next door. So what happened? At the end of the decade she disappeared, not to be seen on screen for six years. Thankfully, she’s since made a comeback – and with Judy, Renée proves she’s back to her best.
Set largely in Britain, Rupert Goold’s biopic focuses on Garland’s last years on the touring circuit. Down on her luck and strapped for cash, Judy is desperate to provide for her family and avoid sending her two young children away. But then an offer arrives. Five weeks in London at The Talk of the Town nightclub – and it pays well. Unable to refuse, the struggling star jets over the Atlantic, making promises of a quick return. But as she prepares for the shows, battles with management, former flames and drug addiction cause everything to unravel.
Featuring some of Garland’s best-known songs (yes, that one too), Judy is most fun when the music’s playing. Zellweger has previous when it comes to singing and her performance is note-perfect. But unlike Chicago murderess Roxie Hart, Judy required a distinctive vocal style. Unique in that she sang with vibrato at “the top of the note instead of the end,” said Zellweger in a recent interview with Picturehouse Recommends, the former-child star also “pushed her consonants in front of her vowels”. As a result, it was a “rollercoaster” getting the part right. Luckily, It doesn’t show. Already touted by many as a sure-fire winner at next year’s Oscars, the Texas-born actress is incredible in a transformational turn. Pitching the tone well, Zellweger snaps between fury and fragility. One of fierce emotions, her portrait is never boring and always magnetic.
You can’t have a film with only one character though – and Judy makes room for some interesting subplots too. Fast-rising Jessie Buckley is a joy as exasperated assistant Rosalyn – and special mention should be made for Bella Ramsey (Game Of Thrones’ Lyanna Mormont), who plays daughter Lorna Luft with sensitivity and care. Time is also made to include Judy’s devoted LGBT fanbase – a nice touch and one that will be appreciated.
Unfortunately, the film does leave itself open to criticism. A heartbreaking finale feels uplifting rather than tragic – and given the terrible way Garland met her end (accidental overdose at age 47), some have argued this does her legacy a disservice. Somewhere (over the rainbow, maybe) there’s a Judy Garland biopic where that doesn’t happen. But when Zellweger’s this good, does it really matter?