In the opening scene of Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie, we watch on as maid Kathleen (Samantha Morton) is advised by the eponymous protagonist to poison the pet dog, after it was caught procreating with a local mongrel. This set of events is symbolic of Miss Julie’s predicament – as the unsettled daughter of aristocracy, fervently attempts to encourage her father’s valet to seduce her. And, much like the pet dog, it’s she who is punished for her actions.
Set in the Northern Irish county of Fermanagh in 1890, across one laborious night, the unhinged Miss Julie (Jessica Chastian) is bored of her humdrum existence, and wants to become closer entwined with the valet John (Colin Farrell), with no care for the fact he’s in a relationship with Kathleen. What transpires is a dramatic, tempestuous evening, where the pair go back and forth – taking place, for the most part, in the former’s kitchen.
This commentary on social class feels as pertinent and profound as it was when first written by Swedish playwright August Strindberg in the 19th century – as a naturalistic tale that has been brought to life by three noteworthy performances. However, while Chastain remains engaging throughout, at times she can be accused of over-acting, as the more elaborate, melodramatic sequences are far less poignant than those which are understated and subtle. There’s a sadness in her eyes and a distinct vulnerability though, which remains a constant throughout. Ullmann – a former Oscar nominated muse of Ingmar Bergman, has presented her feature in such a way that prevents any feeling of claustrophobia too, which is commendable given this is based on a stage play which all takes place in just a small, intimate setting.
However it’s not enough to prevent tedium kicking in, Miss Julie being a film that needlessly surpasses the two hour mark – and believe me, you’ll feel every minute of it. This may be set on a midsummer’s night, but the only dream that exists, regrettably, is the one you may well have about halfway through when you accidentally drift off.