What A Story Of Pure Mischief
My mom and my brother were in New York this week and while they were there, they were lucky enough to witness Jessica Chastain’s flawless stage work in A Doll’s House. I decided to witness some stage work of Chastain myself. The result is a kind of genre many audiences still struggle to get used to but remains captivating to me: Films that feel like plays. Many of these films mostly reside in one location and only feature a few characters.
In this case, it is Liv Ullmann’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, released in 2014. The film takes place on Midsummer Night, 1890, in a grand and luxurious castle in Northern Ireland. The estate is deserted for the entirety of the film except for 3 individuals: The elegant and mischievous Miss Julie (Portrayed in the opening scene by Nora McMenamy and then Jessica Chastain for the entire film) who is the traveling Baron’s daughter, the Baron’s longtime Valet John (Colin Farrell) and the gentle kind hearted Cook Kathleen (Samantha Morton).
All three actors deserve roses thrown at their feet as audiences clap and scream their names. The performances are magnificent and it really does help that these are actors who are in the midst of major success right now. Chastain is still a favorite on Netflix from her role in The Good Nurse and she also has two dramas coming out later this year AND she’s on Broadway for her work in A Doll’s House. Farrell has always been beloved and never seems to slip away from an audience's desire. The booming praise for The Banshees Of Inisherin is still ringing loudly and the incredible Samantha Morton is still fresh off the heels of her scene-stealing work as Harvey Weinstein’s former employee in She Said and her tour de force moment as Brendan Fraser’s brokenhearted ex-wife in The Whale.
Miss Julie is very innocent, sheltered, and spoiled. Not even bratty in the beginning but rather cheerfully entitled to the things she insists she deserves. John and Kathleen are secretly engaged (Only known to Miss Julie). Miss Julie, who is already feeling bored and restless from the Midsummer Night heat that is so extreme as the sun never sets, decides to amuse herself by happily flaunting her authority over an annoyed John and nervous Kathleen. She comes to the kitchen (The room where most of Miss Julie takes place and in fact is a room with a lot of symbolism for the characters) insisting John dance with her. “I the mistress of the house honor the worker's dance with my presence” she gloats. The meek and uncomfortable Kathleen soon receives permission from Miss Julie to retire to her room for the night, leaving John as the only toy in Miss Julie’s trunk of playthings.
Miss Julie drops numerous passive-aggressive statements reminding John of their class differences (All with a cheerful demeanor) and continues to flirt with him and supply herself with her father’s wine. “You may kiss my shoe,” Miss Julie says as she lifts her foot up onto a wooden chair. “I can’t do that,” John replies. “And if I order you to do it?” Miss Julie replies in return though this replay may refer to another of her requests as she has so many.
John has suppressed his feelings of worthlessness that have haunted him all his life which towards the end of Miss Julie’s second act fully manifests into a hateful and uncontrollable rage. By this point, Miss Julie and John have given in to the lust the Midsummer heat fills them with. The possibility that Miss Julie may have gotten pregnant takes the film in a heat-pounding direction that nearly resembles that of a period thriller. They never venture far from the estate of course. Miss Julie is a character study beyond anything else and the story is just as much John and Kathleen’s as it is Miss Julie’s.
They all sound and look at their parts perfectly. Chastain really resembles Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut as her pale face makes her hair look a reddish blonde. She thinks she’s more powerful than she really is and as she wails like a tiny child as she continuously falls from grace throughout the night, you see that she truly never really knew how self-destructive she was behaving. If you give hungry mice crumbs of cheddar, they’re going to nibble on it and Miss Julie who liked to see herself as a lioness becomes that of a tiny mouse as her cries of woe remain unresolved.
All the characters' misfortunes are in their body language. Miss Julie drunkenly walks down the stairs with her giant birdcage that has her tiny yellow canary - Her most beloved and important possession. John’s neck seems to grow tighter and thinner as he struggles to suppress his rage towards Miss Julie’s carelessness and his own stupidity. Poor Kathleen proves to be the strongest of the three. Not just because she’s the only one who’s done nothing wrong but for her ability to really see people. She screams and wails at John that she harbors no anger towards Miss Julie as her lack of hardship leaves her unable to know any better. Children always want what they cannot have and by giving it to her, she’s now completely lost. She also generously expresses a loyal empathy for her employer as she points out that the Baron has known tragedy and a scandal may kill him.
Pay close attention to a horrified Kathleen’s eyes as she watches Miss Julie on the stone-cold kitchen floors picking up all the money she stole from her father’s study. Miss Julie drunkenly insists that Kathleen come with her and John to start a hotel in Switzerland so she can run the kitchen there and eventually marry a wealthy Englishman while she marries John. The horror in Kathleen's eyes is the same horror Morton displays in The Whale when she first lays her eyes on her ex for the first time in years. Such innocence and so naive Miss Julie proves herself to be in this moment. She really is a sheltered child who has no clue how brutal the world is. She truly thinks that despite all that’s happened, she can make it all ok. Kathleen’s compassion for Miss Julie is beautiful and heartbreaking but ultimately, there’s nothing Kathleen can do to help her. She and John have made their choices and neither of them plan to redeem themselves on Kathleen’s terms.
“I won’t work in a house where people can’t behave decently!” Kathleen yells as she gets ready to so adorably put on her little church hat and seek comfort in a nearby Abbey. The kitchen has one of those Downton Abbey bells that rise up when they ding and by the time one of the little bells dings, the curtains are about to close on Miss Julie and a final decision is to be made, regardless of the tragedy.
Miss Julie is a film any fan of any of these actors will enjoy. There really is something to be said about that feeling audiences can get from films that make you feel like these people are the only ones in the world. I also think anyone about to go on a trip to Ireland would also benefit greatly by watching this film. Lands like Ireland have a way of making us feel we are traveling back in time just as Miss Julie does.
The final shots are set where the film opens, amongst the waters of a nearby brook. What does the water symbolize? The natural flow of life? An organized household? People staying in the ranks society has laid out for them? I still don’t know. But what a story of pure mischief.
West End Films. (n.d.). Miss Julie. Westend films. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://westendfilms.com/welove/miss-julie