CIFF Opening Night Presentation, 10/9
World premiere: 7 September, 2014, Toronto International Film Festival

Time for fun with coincidences! What has been, till now (and I suspect it will remain so), the most prominent film adaptation of Swedish playwright August Strindberg's massively important 1888 play Miss Julie was the 1951 Palme d'Or winner directed by Alf Sjöberg, the Swedish filmmaker who was Ingmar Bergman's primary mentor. And now we have a new adaptation (in English, and not set in Sweden) of the play, this one directed and adapted by Liv Ullmann, whose primary mentor was Ingmar Bergman, with whom she made so many all-time great works of cinema in her capacity as one of the all-time great actresses in the history of the screen.

What she is not, mind you, is one of the all-time great directors; but that's okay, neither was Sjöberg, whose satisfactory but not masterpiece-level film took extensive liberties with the text, changed the ending, and added a longish flashback. Maybe Miss Julie is just one of those plays that inherently resists being filmed - it's impact, I am told (not having seen it performed live), is inextricable from the physical act of its staging, being drawn into the actual world of the manor kitchens where the action exclusively takes place. Ullmann doesn't do anything to counteract that impression in her solemnly literal blocking, resisting all but a handful of attempts to re-imagine the play's emotional stakes in any kind of visual language (the one major exception, viewing the underground tunnel leading from the kitchen to the outside world as a long vaginal tunnel leading to pure white light, is not coincidentally the only thing in the film that's interesting to look at).

Miss Julie, for those of you whose working knowledge of essential 19th Century European theater is rusty, is a story about class resentment. It is, I mean to say About class resentment. It is about class resentment in the way that One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is about piscine taxonomy. Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) is the indecorous daughter of a titled landowner, whose offscreen antics open the plot by thoroughly humiliating her father's valet, John (Colin Farrell) on Midsummer Night. She was, he angrily tells his fiancée Kathleen (Samantha Morton), parading around and dancing and drinking at the servant's party in a barn, where the whole point of the thing is that they could all relax on this night of celebration and merrymaking without having to think about the nobs they work for every day of the year. Julie's antics have only started, though; she follows John to the kitchen, and proceeds to act in strange and sexually predatory ways, violating the sacred code separating servant from employer not just in terms of showing up uninvited (and unwelcome) in the kitchen, but also by breaking down the rules of propriety between ranks. And John, who secretly lusts after her almost as much as he secretly despises her, is more than willing to to take advantage of her weirdly open behavior. All of this now takes place in Ireland, which doesn't not make sense, and that's pretty much the nicest compliment I have for it.

For a contemporary audience, the limitation of Miss Julie, the play, is that it's predicated on a social construction that doesn't really exist any more, and while like all great literature, it boasts its fair share of shattering insights into the human condition, it's incumbent upon the director (onstage or onscreen) to find ways through the period trappings of the play into something more workable and accessible, both for the person watching and the actors playing it. This is very much not done here. While it's fair to say that Ullmann's control over the film tightens in the more overtly confrontational second half, even in its best moments, this Miss Julie is always a bit stuffy and tacky in its approach to costume drama theatrics. Rather than bringing fresh, living energy to the 19th Century, the film pushes it even further away with weird camera angles and arbitrary cutting that make the spatial relationships between the characters and with regions of the set much harder to parse than they should be.

And if the film's visual language is stiff and difficult to read, that's nothing on the acting, which is a legitimately outrageous disappointment, given the caliber of the cast. Morton is head and shoulders above her colleagues, emerging almost totally unscathed with a performance that accepts the most perfunctory reading of the play's smallest part, but at least she does a capable job of executing it. The leads are, honestly, quite dreadful: Farrell probably has the more to be ashamed of, both because his choices are more generic, and because he's so horribly lost at sea in the part, throwing out one emotion after another and being quite loud with almost all of them, and never bothering to tie them together, like he wasn't only thinking of scenes in isolation, but of individual lines as well, figuring out what to with every beat, but never tying them up into a cohesive performance.

Chastain is the heartbreaking one, though. Three years after her breakthrough annus mirabilis, it was easy to assume she was some kind of cast-iron goddess, incapable of making wrong decisions even when she was in dubious films; Miss Julie puts paid to that idea. The only defense I can think of is that Chastain is certainly fearless here, committing to her decisions and riding them out, even when they are as vague and out-of-phase as her slinkiness in the early scenes, or as bombastically off-putting as her approach to Julie's mad, violent outbursts in the back half, which are played in something rather closer to a horror movie register than I would have ever expected to see in any version of this play. These are not "bad" decisions, maybe; but they are bad in a version of Miss Julie as convention-bound and generic as this.

The movie has a slapdash feel, a sense that it wasn't ready to go, like we're watching a filmed version of the final dress rehearsal and first table read simultaneously. The play will survive the movie, of course; so will the cast, and so will Ullmann. But hope does not survive: this cast, this director, and this material were, on paper, a terrific mixture of talents and content, and it is tremendously disappointing that all they were able to scrape out of it was this… this