I grew up idolizing Judy Garland. The Wizard of Oz is one of my earliest shared cinematic loves with my family. Garland was the epitome of the Hollywood icon, the ultimate refined star. Someone who represented purity, hope and big dreams. It was the exact image the studio wanted and it worked on me as a kid dazzled by movie magic. But of course, as you get older reality sets in, things come into focus and it becomes all too clear that even dreams achieved are rarely as perfect as they once seemed.
Much of Judy focuses on Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) in her 40s. There are flashbacks to her early days as a child star in Hollywood, working tirelessly and being denied many of the simple pleasures of life from jumping into a pool to eating a burger and more. While Garland did make an indelible impression on cinema, decades later she can’t afford to support her children, she’s homeless and she also can’t get a solid gig in Hollywood. When she’s offered a residency in London, she’s really got no choice but to bite, so she’s forced to leave her children with their father and move to London where she performs for packed crowds while alcoholism and severe anxiety threaten to derail her run at any moment.
There are some beautiful moments in Tom Edge’s adaption of the Peter Quilter play, End of the Rainbow, but structurally, Judy is a mixed bag. Weak transitions threaten the pace and fluidity of the film, and there are also key supporting characters who could have made a bigger impression. For example, we’ve got the incomparable Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, the production assistant on Judy’s London show who has more patience than most. Her story beats are a bit repetitive and the conclusion of her part of the film doesn’t really rock you to the core, but if you pull back and assess the overall web of characters that Garland is right smack in the middle of, that’s where the importance of the ensemble really comes into focus. It isn’t about Rosalyn and Judy, but rather specifically how Rosalyn responds to Judy’s ups and downs compared to Judy’s fans, her family, hecklers in the crowd, people from her past and so forth. Judy Garland lived in a tornado of high praise, big expectations, demands, and people she thought she could rely on who wind up letting her down. It’s crushing on paper, but even more so on screen due to the amount of access Zellweger gives the viewer to Garland’s experience.
She is truly exceptional in the role. Zellweger is a phenomenal talent in her own right, but while she’s playing one of the greatest cinema icons of all time, you just can’t take your eyes off of her. As presented in Judy, Garland’s deepest desires are all so pure; to be with her kids, to do a good job and to find love. Yes, some bad choices are made along the way, but Garland’s situation also comes across as a result of growing up in the Hollywood system, plagued by astronomical pressures and also inappropriate behavior. That quality makes Judy play a bit like a devastating tragedy, but director Rupert Goold does weave in some very effective tinges of hope that highlight that Judy Garland is truly unforgettable.
The most remarkable supporting characters of the bunch are Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira as a gay couple who’ve viewed Judy as a source of inspiration. It taps into a particular idea that does tend to move me on screen and that’s the power of art. There are times when one could say, “It’s just a movie,” or, “It’s just a song,” but then there are those special few that could really lift your spirits or empower you, maybe when you need it most. Not only does that come through with these two men, but then they pay it forward. It is a tad saccharine, but it delivers warmly welcomed emotional and uplifting results.
Finn Wittrock does what he can as Mickey Deans, Garland’s fifth husband. Yes, the material is based on a true story and if you’re familiar with it, you know where this is heading, but one could still hope to lose themselves in the whirlwind romance so that the later story beats pack a bigger punch. On the other hand, Darci Shaw makes the most of every single minute of screen time as young Judy. Similarly, you’re well aware of the path Judy is on and the problems she’s bound to encounter, but Shaw brings such sweetness and vulnerability to the role, prior knowledge melts away and you’re totally lost in the moment.
Overall, Judy is flawed but effective. Judy Garland had an undeniable charm and Zellweger very successfully captures the volatility of swinging back and forth between that appeal and what puts Garland at great risk of falling victim to her vices. There’s such integrity in Judy’s determination to entertain and be with her family that it’s infectious. You ache for her to get what she desires while knowing it’ll never be the exact happily ever after she’s pictured. It’s crushing to say the least, but the movie puts great emphasis on the importance of holding tight to the good memories and the lives she changed for the better along the way.