Whether the recollections imparted in Fred Zinnemann’s eloquent and exquisite Julia are fact-based or fictional, there’s no denying that this masterful 1977 film emerges as one of the best of its era.
The Production: 5/5
Whether the recollections imparted in Fred Zinnemann’s eloquent and exquisite Julia are fact-based or fictional, there’s no denying that this masterful 1977 film emerges as one of the best of its era. With stupendous performances from a cast filled with stars and soon-to-be-stars, period atmosphere that puts the viewer right into the midst of pre-World War II Europe, and a splintered narrative that mesmerizes rather than off-puts, Julia is a breathtaking film.
When playwright Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) hears through some contacts that her long-cherished childhood friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) is in need of her to bring much needed money to Berlin to use in their underground work against the rising tide of Nazism, Lillian doesn’t hesitate on her way to a Moscow arts festival to do as her friend instructs. In a difficult journey fraught with nerve-jangling encounters with severe authorities across Europe carefully orchestrated by the Resistance, Lillian has time to reflect on her many experiences with her friend, understandings that taught her much about the true nature of courage and the decency of fighting for what’s right even when it isn’t easy.
Alvin Sargent’s Oscar-winning screenplay is based on a chapter from Lillian Hellman’s memoirs Pentimento, but the writer has fleshed out scenes masterfully and placed the numerous flashbacks throughout the movie at important times when each reminiscence is most salient to what Lillian is experiencing at the moment in the (then) present day. The movie proper covers a three-year period as Hellman struggles to finish her first play (which turned out to be one of the landmarks of 1930s drama The Children’s Hour) and then risks her life to aid her friend, and director Fred Zinnemann spends the first hour giving us generous glimpses into Lillian’s world as a child and young adult with Julia and then in the main period of the story living with popular author Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) while Julia pursues medical studies in Vienna and grows more involved with the anti-Nazi movement. Once Lillian embarks on the dangerous undercover mission to deliver much-needed funds to Julia and her associates in Berlin, the film’s core in its second hour takes a vise-like grip on the viewer’s attention. The reminiscences are twofold: they show the close bond between the two schoolgirls in establishing motivation for Lillian’s ultimate decision to attempt the journey and aid in bolstering Lillian’s often shrinking courage as the trip gets more complex and arduous. The eventual final meeting between the friends is one of the screen’s great sequences acted to such perfection by the two award-winning actresses that it’s both touching, triumphant, and tragic all simultaneously, one of the most unique moments in American cinema. Throughout, director Zinnemann’s formalized approach to the storytelling gives the film a note of unhurried class as we get to know the main characters in beautifully staged and shot sequences.
Jane Fonda’s Lillian is more reactive than active in the movie, but it’s impossible not to be moved by her admiration for her friend and her determination to do right by her no matter the physical and emotional cost. Vanessa Redgrave’s title character only pops up in isolated moments, but her every appearance displays a wide-eyed enthusiasm for life and a deep conviction for what she believes in. Jason Robards (who like Vanessa Redgrave also won an Oscar for his acting here) gives a laidback and wily performance as the quiet Dashiell Hammett while Maximilian Schell has several marvelous scenes midway through the film as the go-between to initially enlist Lillian in the journey. Lisa Pelikan plays the young Julia with more than a slight resemblance to Redgrave while Susan Jones as the young Lillian, while not resembling Jane Fonda very much, does convey her innocence and naiveté quite well. In smaller roles, Meryl Streep makes her screen debut as a snooty friend of Lillian’s while John Glover, who plays her brother, likewise has a spotlight moment in a confrontation with the outraged Lillian. Hal Holbrook and Rosemary Murphy play Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker, great intellects of the era and friends of Lillian’s, while the renowned Cathleen Nesbitt plays Julia’s stern grandmother. Elisabeth Mortensen and Dora Doll act two Resistance workers whose help is instrumental in getting Lillian safely through the menacing European territories.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is faithfully rendered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. With the many reminiscences woven directly into the fabric of the film, soft focus is used extensively in the storytelling, so the film’s merely pleasant sharpness may come as a surprise to those who expect razor-edged clarity in their Blu-rays (the look is exactly as I remember it in the theater). Color is rich and well controlled with accurate skin tones, and contrast seems to have been applied with consistency. Black levels aren’t the deepest and darkest you’ll ever see, but there are no age-related artifacts at all in the presentation. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 sound mix is period-appropriate. Dialogue is always easily discernible and has been combined most professionally with Georges Delerue’s sparsely poignant score and the appropriate atmospheric effects for the era. There are no problems at all with hiss, crackle or any other age-related artifacts.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Audio Commentary: producer Nick Redman sits down with actress Jane Fonda for a fond recalling of the film’s production. Fonda’s memories fade by the last half hour and Redman must resort to explaining plot and motivations in an effort to elicit responses from the Oscar-winning star, but it’s certainly a track worth hearing once even if it doesn’t measure up to some of Twilight Time’s more stellar efforts.
Isolated Score and Effects Track: presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo.
Theatrical Trailer (2:42, SD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains a few color stills, original poster art on the rear cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s enthusiastic examination and appraisal of the movie.
One of the greats of its or any other era, Julia is a haunting, gorgeously rendered film which has finally come to Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.