Great performances sometimes overcome lesser films and Judy is a prime example. Renée Zellweger fully transforms into Hollywood legend Judy Garland in the new biopic — set during the end of Garland's stage days. Leaving behind any sense of imitation, Zellweger manages to create an actual character. It's a feat on many levels, but Zellweger is so good it makes everyone else pale in comparison. She's playing in a higher league and the rest of the production can't keep up.
Directed by Rupert Goold and based on End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, Judy begins with Garland's eviction and subsequent decision to leave her children (including Bella Ramsay from Game of Thrones) with her ex-husband (Rufus Sewell) in order to gig in London. Judy's in dire financial straits after an illustrious but troubled career, but she has even bigger problems. Popping pills, drinking, worrying, posturing — Garland is a hurricane of competing emotions and Zellweger captures it all with wide-eyed intensity.
In London 1969, Garland performs at the Talk of the Town nightclub. She's not the star she once was and the crowd is a strange mix of fans and voyeurs, eager to witness a train wreck. Judy's hesitant at first but is thrown onstage. She drunkenly jousts with a heckler. But when she sings, she becomes Judy Garland once again.
Flashbacks introduce Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) as the devil behind Garland's constant struggle with self-image. ("In every town, there’s a girl who’s prettier than you." He tells her.) And it's the MGM doctors who prescribe the "vitamins" that keep her working 20-hour days. Long one of Hollywood's favorite martyrs, Garland's abuse at the hands of the system is well-portrayed. It informs her questionable character later in life and paints the actress as a tragic figure.
Garland finds happiness with her last husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a younger man who worships and seduces her in equal measure. Garland looks to the men in her life as saviors and continues believing it as one after another fails her. The romance is decidedly conjured as Zellweger outshines every scene partner she's given. But Judy finds some excellence in its smaller moments. Garland is caring but practical with her children which provides an honest look at her personal life. And there's a great scene that pays homage to Garland's status as a queer icon. She's taken home and fed by a gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) which leads to a touching living-room performance.
In the end, Zellweger gives us "Over the Rainbow" in a hushed, elegiac manner that reveals all you need to know about the cross-section of fame and sacrifice in Judy's long career. Hers remains a cautionary tale and a black mark on a studio system that chewed up and spit women out with callous disregard. How could the girl who played Dorothy turn out this way?
Yet, Zellweger gives Garland something else that should always be associated with her: strength. Despite it all, Judy is still out there fighting for herself and her family. Booze, drugs, MGM bullies... None of it defeated her. And Zellweger does it by giving us the Judy Garland we all know and recognize while managing to show us something new at the same time. She doesn't shy away from Garland's eccentricities. She embraces them and that won't be ignored come Oscar time.