If there’s beauty in misery, it’s not to be found in “Miss Julie.” The daughter (Jessica Chastain) and the valet (Colin Farrell) of an Irish baron parade their woes in Liv Ullmann’s adaptation of Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s bitter tragedy.
Their subordinate ranks as a woman and a lowborn servant, respectively, should inspire sympathy, but their self pity is so thorough and one-note that their distress is no more compelling or resonant than a pair of dogs noisily licking their wounds.
The rural, late-19th-century setting is stuck enough in the old ways that Miss Julie’s command that her pregnant pug be fed an abortion-inducing brew (and risk fatal poisoning) rather than be allowed to produce mixed-breed puppies barely yields an eyebrow raise, let alone defiance. Aloof to the servants’ gossip about her — what she looks like when she dances, rides a horse, takes a bath — Miss Julie invites more wagging tongues by seducing her father’s affianced valet John, seemingly more out of tedium than sexual desire.
“Toast me,” she decrees, after ordering him to drink beer. Her eyes are challenging, but also fearful; she knows she’s pushing too far, but she’s so bored she’ll try anything. “Now kiss my shoe,” she demands, hiking up her voluminous dress to mid-thigh. “Get it just right.”
There’s no shortage of women who are punished for their transgressions, and the rest of this cramped, dour, suffocating film is just a series of humiliating lashings upon Miss Julie. Gripping the whip with appalling pleasure is John, who seduces the lady of the house into his bed as a boyish dreamer desperate for a taste of the finer things, then reveals himself to be a petty schemer who wants only what he can’t have.
Ullmann recently remarked that Strindberg “didn’t like women at all … he really looked down at their character,” a comment that would suggest her adaptation to be the kind of feminist revision so popular these days. But the writer-director never finds a coherent point of view (or a way out of Strindberg’s three-wall play structure), and Miss Julie ends up merely a whirlwind of moods without a center, as changeable and as random as a TV flipping channels.
Given such obstacles (and despite wavering accent work), Chastain delivers a virtuoso performance, with each new moment opening up a fresh set of emotions. Farrell is largely squandered in a role that only offers him two faces, though he shares a moving scene of guilty tenderness with Samantha Morton, who plays his betrothed.
The film’s second half hinges on the three paths before Miss Julie after her night with John: shamed spinsterhood, elopement with the valet, or death. Ullmann doesn’t manage to build any urgency around this crossroads, though, in large part because the film’s inertia is dragged down by Chastain and Farrell giving self-consciously angsty monologues about being a falcon or a rat or whatever other creature trapped in a hole. Nor are there any real moments of empathy, which makes Miss Julie and John’s conversations eventually sound like a lose-lose contest for who has the greater right to feel oppressed.
A gash of violence finally decides the lady’s fate, but we’re so numbed by that point by speeches that repeat the same points with different animal metaphors that the resolution carries little impact — as these two might say, like a sparrow thudding against a window. You feel kinda bad, but there are greater tragedies in the world.
“Miss Julie” opens Friday, Dec. 5.