Some actors are chameleons, disappearing into a role as if immersing in water, leaving no ripple behind. Others bring their trademark personas to each character, melding two parts together in a recognizable yet mesmerizing formula. Renée Zellweger is one from the latter category, and “Judy” brings an opportunity to show off how effective this approach can be. We see a familiar Zellweger (Bridget Jones, the frontier woman from “Cold Mountain,” the dauntless Roxie Hart of “Chicago”) in this depiction of Judy Garland. But we also see — or think we see — another Garland, both fantasy figure and all-too-real lost soul.
“Judy” isn’t a biopic; it takes place over only a few months, in the final year of Garland’s life. (She was, heartbreakingly, dead by 47; killed by an addiction to pills that began during her child-star days.) Broke, divorced and deeply in debt in 1968, Garland reluctantly agreed to leave her two youngest children with their father in California (her oldest, Liza Minnelli, was an adult) and traveled to London to perform a series of concerts at a swanky nightclub. Things didn’t go terribly well — Garland, a mess due to pills and drinking and man troubles, sometimes had to be shoved onto the stage — but every now and then, a bit of that “Over the Rainbow” magic peeked through.
Rupert Goold’s movie is all over the place, and every time it veers into a flashback — with Darci Shaw playing a teenage Judy on the MGM lot — the directing gets almost embarrassingly bad. (It’s like a bad movie remake of a bad movie about Judy Garland.) And its tone sometimes slips too far into sentimentality, as in its depiction of a London gay couple who adore Garland. (It’s right that this film should address Garland’s status as a gay icon; you just wish the two men felt less like plot devices.) But when Zellweger is on screen, “Judy” jolts to life.
We know many of these mannerisms: the crinkly voice, the squinty gaze, the way of pulling her mouth tight, the chipper here-I-go indomitability. But Zellweger adds a physicality; her Judy perpetually slouches, like she’s trying to make herself smaller (like the child star she once was), with her head jutting forward as if it’s heavy. Her smile is that of a sad clown; her voice, in the concerts, has an almost desperate abandon. (No, she doesn’t sound exactly like Garland, but Garland herself didn’t sound like she did in the movies anymore; Zellweger gives a sense of a voice ravaged but persevering.)
But what’s most appealing about Zellweger’s portrayal is the brightness that peeps out from the clouds: her deep love for her children, her sly wit. (“Do you take anything for depression?” a doctor asks. Zellweger gives it a wickedly perfect pause before answering, “Four husbands.”) You get a sense, in this skilled and splendid performance, not of an icon, but a person; one terribly damaged by her past and valiantly struggling to remain in her present. “I’m only Judy Garland for part of a night,” she insists. “The rest of the time, I’m part of a family.”
★★★ “Judy,” with Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon. Directed by Rupert Goold, from a screenplay by Tom Edge, based on the play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter. 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking. Opens Sept. 27 at multiple theaters.