In the last moments of Rupert Goold’s “Judy,” Miss Garland (Renée Zellweger) tells her audience: “You won’t forget me; promise me you won’t.” The film does make sure of that, preserving the iconic star in amber, though it’s not as the soft, golden-voiced teen we know so well. This is not Judy not in her prime, but Judy at one of her lowest points, at her most real and raw, and in a transformed and transfixing performance, Zellweger captures Judy as her flawed, vulnerable, sweet, charming and deeply human self.
Based on Peter Quilter’s stage play “The End of the Rainbow,” adapted by Tom Edge for the screen, “Judy” takes place during a run of shows in 1969 at London’s Talk of the Town dinner club. A destitute Judy Garland reluctantly takes the gig in hopes of earning enough money to regain custody of her children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey, from her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).
The film unspools what makes Garland tick. Yes, it is indeed the uppers, downers, booze, insomnia, anorexia and deep-rooted trauma inflicted by a childhood spent laboring under the watch of a controlling, verbally abusive Louis B. Mayer. But we learn that Judy is driven equally by her desires as she is by her demons. All she wants is to be loved. And every night, if she chooses, she can receive that love, in droves, from her audience.
Zellweger embodies Garland’s brittleness, twitchy and strained, hardened by years of drugs and her rough upbringing of long workdays and forced diet pills. Judy has crystallized, thin as glass, ready to shatter at any moment. She works because she must, and because she loves her children, but also because it’s all she’s ever known, to get up on stage and sing. It’s how she earns her living, her love, her existence.
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