23 August 2000 | Buddy-51
intriguing but uncinematic rendering of the play
Sexual and power politics get a late Victorian Era workout in `Miss Julie,' Mike Figgis' bleak, rather stagy adaptation of August Strindberg's classic play. Saddled with what is essentially a one-set, two-character chamber piece, Figgis has chosen, for the most part, not to open-up the work cinematically very much, but rather to concentrate on the stark human drama at its core. This editorial decision keeps the film more faithful to the spirit of the original author's intent perhaps, but it also, by necessity, limits the possibility that we will see Strindberg's work in a new and exciting way.
In his tale, the Swedish author strips the age-old theme of the eternal class struggle to its barest, bleakest essentials. Miss Julie is a beautiful young countess who feels trapped by the stifling provincialism of her privileged position. She yearns to climb down off her well-guarded pedestal and experience life in all the rawness and vigor with which she imagines the lower social orders live out their days. During a Midsummer celebration, in which she attends the raucous revels of the servants in her employ, she begins to make sexual overtures to Jean, a man whose position in the house is that of her father's loyal footman and who, in a parallel of sorts to his mistress, feels just as strongly as she does the stifling demands of his less-than-privileged position. In direct opposition to Miss Julie, Jean has always yearned to gain acceptance in the very social world from which she is trying to escape. Together, they attempt to bridge the unbridgeable gap between gentry and peasant on the common ground of mutual sexual attraction. They discover, though, that some gaps exist never to be filled and that the interjection of the sexual element into their relationship can result in at best only a temporary reversal in their power positions before the much stronger forces of the societal caste system reassert themselves and restore the `normal' balance.
Strindberg's characters and the relationship between them are very complex in their nature. Although Miss Julie and Jean appear to be groping for a safe middle ground where the two of them can find a level of stasis and equality, mostly they end up constantly shifting positions of power in a class struggle that can never be ended in the time and society that has entrapped them. We sense the futility of their aim all throughout the play and the bitterness and harshness of their love/hate relationship imply that the characters sense it as well. This is why `Miss Julie' must inevitably end in tragedy for all involved. The world at that time offered no alternative endings for such a situation.
By bringing a raw physical intensity to their roles of the would-be lovers, Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan help to modernize the characters, emphasizing the sexual passion that holds them in its grip.
It is difficult to know how Figgis, as director, could have expanded the play beyond its claustrophobic theatrical limitations without violating the spirit of the work. For his refusal to in any way really open it out in cinematic terms, `Miss Julie,' for all its intensity of theme and character, ends up as a rather static, talky film. Thus, it is left to future directors, I suppose, to take up the challenge of making a real movie out of `Miss Julie.' If they can only figure out how!