Most stories depicting a battle of the classes draw some very clear lines emotionally. Who is right and wrong, who is good and who is evil. What is the desired result and what is the wrong path. Strindberg, instead, focuses more on the humanity and human condition; desire, change, and the struggle that ensues. He certainly has a point of view, but it plays out through the characters rather than pure polemic. In Miss Julie this becomes a complex battle between the lady of the house and the valet, with more emotional switchbacks than Lombard Street.
Farrell (Winter’s Tale) and Chastain (Interstellar) launch into a conflicted battle of wills and wants almost from the first frame. The whipsaw of their comfort levels with their actions is enough to give you tennis neck. It is both of the actor’s abilities to stay the course of the script while exposing their inner struggles that make the performances compelling.
Supporting them through this tarantella of trouble, Morton (John Carter) provides the center, the embodiment of society at the time; right and wrong. Her part is the most sympathetic, even as you see how trapped she is by both the mores of the time and her own limitations.
This aspect, common to all the characters, is brought into stark relief at a critical moment near the end of the movie. It is both the most shocking and the least well directed of the scenes, which is unfortunate. It doesn’t quite come naturally enough and the immediate moments afterwards read like a slightly botched blocking problem, covered by Chastain, rather than a smooth reality. It might have worked in a stage production, but it glitched on screen.
Despite that moment, director/writer Ullmann brings a lifetime of experience to her composition in this difficult piece. It is beautifully filmed and she retains control of most of the moments, guiding her actors through the two-hour roller-coaster laid out before them on the late 19 Century midsummer’s night of the story. The result is a rather good interpretation of Strindberg’s script, but not necessarily a great movie. Then again, this isn’t necessarily a great play, however important it is within dramaturgy and to playwrights in general.
If you like Strindberg, or plays that are just across the line from naturalism in order to make a point, you’ll appreciate the results here. But it is a ‘talking play’ more than any kind of action. It is purely a battle of wills externally and internally, and the three actors all deliver well. This is a movie you watch for the performances and the photography, more than enjoyment, which keeps it from being a more broad entertainment.