Miss Julie Wraps in Ennsikillen's Castle Coole
Jenny Cathcart visits the set of the period feature shot in Fermanagh and starring Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain
From March to May 2013, Castle Coole, the elegant neoclassical mansion set in unspoilt parkland on the outskirts of Enniskillen, became a sumptuous film set for the latest movie adaptation of August Strindberg’s classic play, Miss Julie.
Directed by one of the great names in world cinema, Norwegian actress and theatre director turned movie director, Liv Ullmann, the $6 million dollar film is produced by Maipo films (Norway), Senorita Films (France), Subotica (Ireland) and in the UK, The Apocalypse Films Company. The star cast includes Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton and Nora McMenamy.
When Strindberg published his masterpiece in 1888, it was deemed to be innovative, experimental and modern. In contrast to the stylised theatrical productions of the day, Miss Julie describes, with shocking realism, the contrasting worlds of the count and the commoner, the rich and the poor.
A woman of noble birth and one of her household servants attempt to bridge the divide with disastrous results. Strindberg acknowledged in his preface that the characters were living in a period of transition, ‘torn between the old and the new, vacillating, out of joint, degenerate'.
Miss Julie has been widely adapted outside Strindberg's native Sweden. In South Africa, Julie was portrayed as a white farmer’s daughter and John a black farm labourer. Liv Ullmann’s screenplay, however, is set in Ireland in the late 1880s.
In Ullman's adaptation, Miss Julie (Chastain), the daughter of a wealthy landowner, is intelligent and beautiful, passionate and imperious yet fundamentally fragile and vulnerable. Her mother, who taught her to hate men, wants her to be strong but she remains dependent with no real sense of purpose.
John (Farrell), her father’s valet, is polished on the outside and coarse within. Born a cotter’s son, his first glimpse of affluence is the garden on the estate, with its allotments of strawberries and raspberries and its Turkish pavilion covered in honeysuckle. He once travelled to Switzerland to work as a wine waiter in a grand hotel in Lucerne. Deep down, his ambition is to be as powerful and rich as his employer. He is articulate, forthright, callous and calculating.
Meanwhile Kathleen (Morton), the kitchen cook, who is also John’s fiancee, is down to earth, hard working, sensible and devout. In her view, Miss Julie is 'too stuck up in some ways and not proud enough in others'.
Oliver Dungey, producing for The Apocalypse Film Company along with Teun Hilte, told me how they chose the subject, the director, the cast and the location.
'We saw Liv Ullmann’s production of A Street Car Named Desire on Broadway, which was so staggeringly good that we approached her about a film series we were planning on the theme of femmes fatales. Ullmann chose Miss Julie, translated it from the original Swedish text and wrote the screenplay very much with Castle Coole – which has everything we wanted – in mind.'
The country seat of the Earls of Belmore, designed by James Wyatt and completed in 1798, Castle Coole was luxuriously furnished in the regency style by the 2nd Earl. Since 1952, the building and part of the grounds have been National Trust property.
Apart from the downstairs kitchen and servants’ quarters, Ullmann planned to shoot scenes upstairs in the entrance hall, the main staircase, the dining room, the saloon and the state bedroom magnificently appointed for a planned visit by King George IV in 1821, but which never took place.
Ullmann (pictured directing a scene in Miss Julie above) was able to draw in the big star names. Jessica Chastain is best known for her film roles in The Help and Zero Dark Thirty, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, and is being tipped as the next Meryl Streep.
Colin Farrell was described by Al Pacino, his co star in The Recruit, as the best actor of his generation. Samantha Morton, who appeared alongside Farrell in Minority Report, received a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of Myra Hindley in the TV film, Longford. 'Being the best actors in the world, they came word perfect to the first run-through,' notes Dungey.
The National Trust’s Property Manager at Castle Coole, Jim Chestnutt, told me how he was first contacted by the producers of Miss Julie in 2011, but only received final confirmation in mid-December 2012. There followed a period of feverish activity as he and his staff prepared the resources required for the longest location shoot ever hosted by a National Trust property in the UK.
On March 4, 2013 the production team set up their offices in the courtyard. Props arrived from London: period furniture for the grand entrance hall, plants, ferns and flower arrangements, a chandelier and lamps, copper pots and pans for the kitchen. Then came the costumes designed by Consolata Boyle, whose work on The Queen and The Iron Lady earned her Oscar nominations.
Downstairs In the kitchen, where most of the action would be filmed, the fully functional stove, acquired some years ago from Lincoln Cathedral, was fired up. Woodwork in the corridors was renovated and painted. Two servant bedrooms, one for John and one for Kathleen, were completely redecorated and freshly furnished. The original servants’ tunnel became operational once more, a busy annexe to the kitchen.
Chastain arrived straight from Broadway, where she had been performing in The Heiress, and lodged with the rest of the team at the Lough Erne Golf Resort, which is to host the G8 summit later this month. Ullmann, supported by first assistant director, Peter Baekkel, Director of Photography, Mikhail Krichman, and a film crew recruited in Northern Ireland, began shooting on April 8.
The last scene was filmed not at Castle Coole but in the woodlands and gardens at Florence Court House. By the end of May, somewhat ahead of schedule, the cast and crew heard the magic words, 'It’s a wrap!'
'Though the roles were gruelling at times for the actors, it was a real joy filming in Fermanagh,' says Dungey. 'The local people were welcoming, the crew were truly professional, the performances superb. We decided to shoot on 35 mm film, a rare thing theses days, but the results are magnificent. Although there have been previous film versions, a whole new generation will never have seen Miss Julie.'
Back in the USA, Chastain wrote on Facebook: 'Making Miss Julie was an incredible experience. It was tough to say goodbye to the beautiful people of [that] gorgeous country.'
The big house at Castle Coole sits serene as ever, looking out over buttercup meadows dotted with ancient oaks and beech trees towards Lough Coole. Inside there is still the smell of fresh paint and, one imagines, a lingering whiff of Hollywood, but the basement kitchen and corridors are silent now. Yet Jim Chestnutt speaks of the positive benefits the film has brought to the stately home.
'This opens a new chapter for us,' he beams. 'The revenue from the film will be reserved for future conservation and restoration projects, and we plan to open a Miss Julie exhibition to coincide with the release of the film early in 2014. A date for your diary.'