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by nic wistreich | august, 2000

Miss Julie


Mike Figgis set up a theatre company in 1980, directing experimental multi-media collaborations on and off before his first feature in 1988. And though this adaptation of August Strindberg’s play is a return to his theatrical roots, Figgis claims that it is his most ‘experimental’ piece yet, more so even than Timecode, which also premiered at Edinburgh. How so? Well this is the first time Figgis has tackled a ‘classic’, and is also his first period drama.

But thankfully this outstanding piece of cinema owes more to Altman and Mike Leigh than the run-of-the-mill British period dramas. Within the claustrophobic walls of the kitchen to a large mansion, Miss Julie has its roots firmly in theatre, yet does not suffer the dull and tedious direction, screenplay and performances that make up the majority of classics-to-screen adaptations. Peter Mullan hands in another showstopping performance as Jean, footservant to a wealthy count. Saffron Burrows is as brilliant as Miss Julie, the voluptuous daughter of the Count, and the pair literally sizzle off each other on screen in one the best British screen pairings in recent memory.

With all the action taking during the course of midsummer’s night, and rarely moving beyond the kitchen, the viewer becomes deeply caught up in the issues and infidelities of Jean and Julie. At a time when religion, class and social responsibility dictated the actions of everyone from top to bottom of society, Miss Julie’s flirtations with Jean set her on a dangerous path. Jean is deeply ambitious, considering himself above his fellow servants, and sees in Julie a chance to clasp the next ‘branch’ up the social ladder.

Figgis shot the film with two 16mm cameras, often with takes as long as 17 minutes, thus forcing the actors to learn lines and rehearse beforehand to an extent not usually seen on film. The result is incredibly tense and captivating drama, much helped by the great talents of Burrows and Mullan.

In so many ways the effect is of watching a play, which usually makes for good TV but dull cinema. Yet, Figgis keeps the camera fluid, circling the actors and moving into extreme close-ups at just the right moments. In one scene where Jean fucks Miss Julie most aggressively, the screen splits into two showing both the act and her reaction (it was from this that Figgis got the idea for Timecode). Other than this there is little trickery, besides the set which appears quite deliberately artificial serving to heighten the drama of the performances.

In short - a fantastic, gripping, powerhouse of a film, that undoubtedly isn’t for all tastes, but for those who like their drama raw and brutal, then this is your movie

Dir: Mike Figgis, UK, 1999

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