The works of August Strindberg, long considered one of the world's
greatest dramatists, are often characterized as misogynistic and not
Working out his own psychological problems (he was illegitimate and
thrice married), the Swedish author wrote essays titled "Woman's
Inferiority to Man" and grappled with the battle of the sexes in several
of his plays, including the one-act "Miss Julie" that has made its way
to film in an adaptation directed by Mike Figgis.
While it's unlikely that this film will achieve blockbuster status, it
should find a receptive audience from the art-house crowd.
"Miss Julie" is essentially a two-hander pitting a spoiled, neurotic
aristocrat's daughter against her father's handsome, if coarse, footman.
The pair engages in a flirtation that leads to sex that leads to
recriminations and ultimately to tragedy. Strindberg was not only
writing about the battles between men and women but also the class
struggle, with the footman often viewed as a social climber.
In addition to providing great roles for two strong actors, the play is
malleable enough to accommodate a more contemporary resonance. For
example, in some productions, a racial element is introduced as in a
1980s production that moved the play's setting from Sweden to South
The play has been filmed three times before -- a 1912 Swedish silent,
the 1951 Swedish version with Anita Bjork long considered the standard,
and a 1972 British adaptation with a stunning performance by Helen
Mirren. Now it's Saffron Burrows' turn to tackle the role in Figgis'
filming of Helen Carpenter's translation.
A predominant theme in Figgis' work is the fall from grace, never more
baldly addressed than in 1999's "The Loss of Sexual Innocence." So it
follows that he would be attracted by Strindberg's play as it depicts
the castigation of both of its key players. While there are inherent
pitfalls to filming what is essentially a two-character drama played out
on one set, Carpenter's adaptation "opened up" the action just enough,
and the virtuoso camerawork by Benoit Delhomme aided Figgis in his
It also helped that the director hired three fine actors, each
contributing sterling work. Although the fine Irish actress Maria Doyle
Kennedy was saddled with the basically thankless role of Christine, the
overworked cook and lover to the footman Jean, she still managed to make
an impression. Burrows looks appropriately regal and aristocratic, but
at first she appears miscast. Only as the film unfolds do her acting
choices in the early scenes come to make sense and her performance grows
in stature and power.
Matching her is the extraordinary Scottish actor Peter Mullan (perhaps
most known for his searing work as a recovering alcoholic in "My Name Is
Joe"). Compact and fiery, Mullan crafts a portrait of a man who both
knows his station but aspires to something more. He and Burrows also
share that ineffable thing called screen chemistry, and each seems to
elicit the best from the other.
Some may quibble about the necessity for yet another version of this
work, but as the world moves into a new century, Figgis and company
clearly point out that for all the advances in technology, the
fundamental difference between the sexes continues. "Miss Julie" may be
set in the 1880s, but it continues to resonate in the 1990s and beyond.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and a scene of sexuality.
Saffron Burrows: Miss Julie
Peter Mullan: Jean
Maria Doyle Kennedy: Christine
An MGM/UA presentation. Director Mike Figgis. Screenplay Mike Figgis and
Helen Cooper. Play August Strindberg. Producers Mike Figgis and Harriet
Cruickshank. Director of photography Benoit Delhomme. Editor Matthew
Wood. Production designer Michael Howells. Costume designer Sandy
Powell. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.