It's double-bill time, two movie adaptations of MISS JULIE, August Strinberg's play written in 1888, with 63 years apart. The 1951 version is made by Strinberg's fellow Swedish countryman, Alf Sjöberg. Shot in dashing Black and White, Sjöberg's film stars Anita Björk and Ulf Palme as the central pair, Miss Julie, the daughter of a Count (Henrikson) and her servant Jean, during the mid-summer night, they test the limit of seduction, passion and dignity between two incompatible classes, it shared the prestigious Grand Prize in Cannes with Vittorio De Sica's MIRACLE IN MILAN (1951).
Empowered by an impactful score from Dag Wirén, the film conjures up the pair's gender-and- class tug-of-war with a phantasmagoria of sequences narrating their dreams and past. The desire for falling versus an ambition of climbing from different starting tier concretes Julie and Jean as perfect specimens to explore their moral and emotional clashes. Outstanding cinematography creates amazing shots where flashback merges together with the present, imagination coexists with the reality. There is no win-win situation in the battle of sex, Miss Julie's paradoxical attempt to patronise her servant and at the same time to be sexually overtaken by him is a self-digging grave for her own undoing, and Jean's struggle between his sexual impulse and deep-rooted inferiority complex is the last nail on her coffin.
Anita Björk embodies a graceful mien of nobility emitting a whiff of recalcitrance that makes her portrayal of Miss Julie a distant, spoiled figure never truly reveals her true emotions, whereas Ulf Palme delicately betrays his insecurity and immaturity out of his pseudo-confidence and prince-charmant appearance. Among the supporting cast, Dorff's Kristin, the cook, takes a less prominent function than Morton in the 2014 film, and we also see a very young Max von Sydow giggling in his plain nature. Overall, this vintage oldie is a pleasant discovery, especially compared to the more lyrical but problematic latest version directed by the acting legend Liv Ullmann.
With a running time around 130 minutes (contrast with 89 minutes of Sjöberg's picture), but maximally axing the bit parts with three characters only (save the two-minutes opening sequence showing a young Julie rollicking in the forest), Miss Julie (Chastain), the butler John (Farrell) and Kathleen the cook (Morton), this austere version is set in Ireland, and is much more loyal to the text's original form with its take-no-prisoners' method to let the acting-trio wrangling in the turmoil with lengthy monologues and dialogues. It is a chancy choice, Ullmann invests a full trust in her cast, and is willing to take the risk of prolonging the takes to let the emotional repercussions permeate, even music is barely used as an immediate mood-mediator, only at times playing in the background with unobtrusive volume.
"The night is long and it is so tiring", the film becomes tedious as the same plot and twist blathering on and on; and "class is class", the invisible barrier strips them down to their inveterate bias and beliefs. However, the trio's whole-hearted devotion is the saving grace of Ullmann's labour-of-love. Morton, her Kathleen becomes a morally righteous yardstick to the scandalous affair, John is her beau, and Miss Julie is her mistress, her inward feeling is given a more detailed vent to show off, and Morton is always excellent to watch, modest in looks, but tremendously engaging. Farrell, portrays a quite different character from Palme, his John is more approachable to read, more pliable to manipulate, also more reprehensible to condemn for his cowardice, the explicit canary-murdering scene makes him more like a perpetrator than a foolish social-climber in the end.
Chastain stands at odds with Farrell and Morton's Irish accent, but her mercurial personae are wondrous to stare, this could be a tour-de-force if it was on stage, yet as a film, her labour (the same can to said to Farrell and Morton) cannot redeem the sluggish rhythm and a length overstays its welcome, in a sense, only true savant of stage play can luxuriate in it, for most people, the 1951 version is more superior.
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