Fermanagh's Castle Coole stands tall in Colin Farrell's simmering Victorian drama, despite the stage-to-film adaptation's big screen shortcomings
If there is an enduring message to emerge from Miss Julie, director Liv Ullmann’s intense and glowering take on the equally stifling August Strindberg play, it is that the roots of the Anglo-Irish class system run very deep indeed.
As stout cook Kathleen (Samantha Morton) doles out a scolding to colleague-cum-fiancé John (Colin Farrell) for daring to believe he could subvert the certainties of rank, one is struck by the important role such things play in the lives of the people below stairs, as well as those above.
In a picture that jars more often than it flows, the clunky old spectre of social station – and all the complexities that come with it – feels like the most significant character, one that shapes the path of each person in a cast that never numbers more than three.
Transposed from Sweden to a Midsummer’s Eve in 19th-century Ireland, the latest adaptation is set and filmed in the handsome environs of Castle Coole, near Enniskillen, a neo-classical edifice that ably serves as the stage for this simmering Victorian drama.
It centres on the interaction between the eponymous mistress of the house – Jessica Chastain, somewhat removed from the steeliness of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty – her baron father’s valet, John, and Kathleen, whose gift for perception cuts through the increasingly fraught proceedings.
The initial impression of Julie chimes with the stereotype of a spoiled, capricious lady of leisure, her mere presence both a source of worry and awe to the individuals in her father’s employ.
When she invades the kitchen to alleviate her boredom, however, she comes into immediate conflict with John and Kathleen, pillars of the household with their own ideas about the natural order of things, within and without Castle Coole’s halls.
In its early moments, Ullman’s work roils with a tension most remarkable for its sense of unspoken boundaries. As Julie is demanding, quick to trumpet her place in the domestic hierarchy, so too are the servants coldly disapproving of her guileless inelegance. The initial exchanges are fascinating.
Unfortunately, that impression does not sustain. Miss Julie might succeed as a live performance, drawing strength from the natural claustrophobia of a playhouse, but in cinematic terms, a plot beset by a torturous pace renders this version exhausting long before a finale as bleak as it is welcome.
In a film that exceeds two hours, the dense dialogue will come to grate on even the most patient observer. It struggles to escape its theatrical roots, those leanings making the whole affair seem studied to the point of being irritating.
As actors, Chastain, Morton and Farrell are invariably excellent but they are undone here by a script that affords them no room for anything beyond emoting and reacting.
Farrell, in spite of the assumed location, anchors his accent in Belfast – just – and spends a great deal of time quivering with an unfathomable mix of rage, hatred and carnal desire. The latter manifests itself in a deliberately obscure interaction with Chastain that symbolises so much more than sexual domination.
Indeed, one of Strindberg’s favoured themes was that of Darwinism and it is in this respect that Ullman manages to present elements worthy of attention. Save for a few brief scenes in the surrounding Fermanagh countryside, the action occurs mostly in the kitchen, the domain of workers whose politics would mould the approaching post-aristocratic landscape.
For all their airs, Julie and her ilk are on the way out, no longer destined to succeed by virtue of their birth. John — ambitious, scheming, motivated to better his lot — represents those with the desire to grab hold of the established order, to throttle it, bearing a grin while doing so. Having invoked his ire, Julie stands not a chance.
Late on, John, now the dominant partner in a toxic dynamic, growls ‘I see now what helpless creatures you people are.’ The exclamation is shot through with pity and frustration that he should ever have been mastered by such wretches.
Ultimately, it is Kathleen who balances the warped scales, yet her embrace of the comforting present ignores that new world coming fast on the horizon. There is no stopping it.
Miss Julie is now on general release, screening at Enniskillen's Omniplex Cinema from September 4 - 10 and Queen’s Film Theatre from September 18 - 23.