August Strindberg's 1888 play Miss Julie is a tricky beast. It's an important play, as it captured a level of naturalism which surpassed almost everything else being written for the stage at that time. It features only three characters, takes place in a single location and unfolds over the course of a single 90-minute act. The writing is rich and the characters are complex, so it's no surprised that the play had been revived many times on stage and screen. Even so, there's no getting around the fact that Strindberg's defining work is a deeply misogynistic affair; a piece in which the writer unleashes his hatred for women in startling, venomous fashion. As such, it's a particularly difficult play to adapt in the modern era, as those tackling it must find a way to re-contextualize the hateful essence of Strindberg's work. The best thing about Mike Figgis' 1999 film version of the play is that it does indeed manage reframe the events of the tale in a manner that feels less overtly sexist. On the downside, Figgis' Miss Julie isn't really much of a movie.
In case this is your first encounter with the story (and it really shouldn't be), permit me to explain the setup. Julie (Saffron Burrows, Deep Blue Sea) is a wealthy woman who resides in her father's manor and enjoys toying with her many servants. One of these servants is Jean (Peter Mullan, War Horse), a short-tempered footman who is currently engaged to the no-nonsense kitchen maid Christine (Maria Doyle Kennedy, Orphan Black). Julie fancies Jean, and constantly flirts with him despite the fact that she's well aware of his engagement. He's uncomfortable with the way she behaves around him, but engages her in conversation out of respect for the fact that she is his employer (a fact she's perfectly willing to remind him of from time to time). Over the course of a single night, a long conversation turns into a sexually-charged battle of wills.
The play itself has been analyzed to death for more than a century, so I won't add more noise to the mix. Suffice it to say that Strindberg has some compelling things to say about the shifting relationships between different social classes, and that his occasional brutishness doesn't change the fact that he was capable of brutal honesty. There's a clear-eyed straightforwardness to Strindberg's work which is hard to deny, and I suspect his clarity of purpose is a large part of why so many have felt a need to offer their own take on his work.
The biggest problem with this Miss Julie is that the title character practically disappears in contrast to her co-star. As Jean, Peter Mullan is intimidating, forceful, brooding and quietly explosive. He's a kettle of slow-boiling fury, just barely managing to contain his resentfulness towards Julie. He is repulsed by her privilege, her presumptuousness, her carnality and her lack of propriety. The manner in which he has been treated over the course of his life has made him bitter, and Julie's obliviousness to her own comfort deeply angers him. And yet, a part of him loves her, needs her and desires her in a way that transcends his feelings for the humble Christine. Mullan owns the part – he's always a remarkable presence – but he overwhelms the movie. Burrows is doing good, subtle, understated work as Julie, but she's working in an entirely different register and never quites finds a way to get in sync with Mullan's more physical, forceful turn. Mullan grabs the scenes and claims them as his own. Is it possible for a performance to be too good? Maybe, but that's only part of the problem.
In an effort to create a different sort of naturalistic realism, Figgis employs shaky handheld cinematography and offers little in the way of elaborate set design. The results is a film which aesthetically veers closer to the early works of Lars von Trier than to your average period picture. Alas, the stripped-down approach only emphasizes the stagebound nature of the material, and it feels like we're watching little more than a low-budget filmed play. Figgis also tends to favor extreme close-ups, zooming in on the mouths and eyes of his characters in an effort to create a sense of intimacy. In one particularly ill-advised sequence, he employs a split-screen effect for the sake of... what, exactly? Whatever it was intended to accomplish, it feels like a self-indulgent distraction.
There are other ways to experience the source material, and they're worth seeking out. Swedish director Alf Sjoberg's 1951 adaptation of the play is more comfortable with Strindberg's misogyny, but it also finds a way to turn the extremely stagebound play into something strikingly cinematic (and it also delivers a version of the eponymous character well worth remembering). On the more modern side, one has the option of Liv Ullmann's (admittedly rather static) 2014 adaptation, which approaches the material from a distinctly female perspective and finds things which hadn't been unearthed before. Figgis' version has a great Jean, but what good is a great Jean without an equally great Julie? For that matter, what good is a film adaptation of a play which fails to captivate the viewer on any sort of visual level? In overcoming some of the more frustrating elements of Strindberg's work, Figgis provides more than a few frustrations of his own. As an alternative, try his Leaving Las Vegas – a much stronger, wiser work about a mutually self-destructive relationship.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1999