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"Renee Zellweger delivers a performance for the ages"

★★★★ - STUFF 

- Around this time of year, the people who think far too much about these things start to pencil in their Oscar shortlists.

My own is currently up to two. I'll be amazed if Joaquin Phoenix doesn't get a nod for best actor for his work in Joker. Phoenix has been perfecting his angsty-misfit-who-might-just-explode routine for so long now, it's not always easy to remember just how nuanced and effective he has been in so many smaller, lesser-seen roles.

Although even Phoenix's range and type-defiance seems kinda small when stacked up against what Renee Zellweger has put her name to in the last decade or two. When conversation turns to who really is "the next Meryl Streep?" it's usually Jessica Chastain, Julianne Moore, Tilda Swinton, Charlize Theron, Rachel McAdams, Naomi Watts and co that get mentioned.

But Zellweger, to me, has got them all beat. Blessed with a fantastic brand of unconventional beauty, Zellweger managed to avoid all the tedious typecast "beautiful girl" roles her contemporaries were saddled with for the first years of their careers and instead, like Swinton, was allowed to run riot in character roles from the get-go.

From understated turns in the shadow of the stars in Jerry Maguire and Cinderella Man to burning down the whole goddam house in Chicago, there's not much Zellweger hasn't done. And yet, Zellweger seldom gets mentioned as one of the current crop of greats, despite already having a well-won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Cold Mountain on her bookshelf.

And for her work in Judy, I reckon Zellweger is at least going to get a chance to get her first Oscar a buddy. If awards season kicked off a few weeks ago with Joker, then Judy is about to become part of the conversation.

Judy Garland lived for 47 years and was a star for 45 of them. By the time she was 14 years old, she was one of the most bankable names in Hollywood. She starred in The Wizard of Oz at 15 and has been a fixture in the firmament of Hollywood legends ever since.

But Garland's personal life was a trainwreck even by the standards of child-stars. The studio, run by the grotesque Louis B Meyer, had her addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates while she was still a teenager.

She drank hugely, made more suicide attempts than anyone can count, married well a couple of times and badly a few more and was generally lucky to be capable of standing on her feet, let alone belting out tunes with a voice that could still knock 'ém dead in the back rows, by the time she arrived in London for what would prove to be the last shows of her life.

Judy toggles back and forth between Garland's time on the set of The Wizard of Oz and these last few months on Earth. Director Rupert Goold (True Story), working from a script based on the Broadway show End of the Rainbow, marshalls the known facts of Garland's life economically and intelligently. Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (The Crown) lights the screen with a likably scuzzy mix of neon and dingy backstage bulbs as the film unfurls in London, while the Los Angeles-set flashbacks are all bright sun and cornflower skies.

Goold is also well served by his support cast, especially Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose) playing Garland's fixer and helper. Michael Gambon, who has been looking ancient for about three decades now, dials in a cameo as the owner of the London venue.

But all you will remember of Judy is Zellweger, hoofing, howling, heartbroken and heartbreaking in a performance for the ages. Everything else is just setting.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF


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