by Dave Randall

Directed by Rupert Goold
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Michael Gambon, Finn Wittrock
Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language and smoking
1 hr. 58 min.

Can one accurately call it a comeback when an actor takes back their own life, then returns in triumph? Or simply a case of picking up where one left off? Renée Zellweger took a self-imposed sabbatical from a career that garnered her one Academy Award in three nominations, and the eternal love of British fans for her portrayals of Bridget Jones, regardless of the fact that she’s not a Brit. There couldn’t have been a better vehicle for her reemergence than the role of Judy Garland.

Judy, adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s Broadway smash, End of the Rainbow, is all Zellweger’s. She absolutely inhabits Garland’s specific skin: the brilliant, troubled belter of songs, possessor of delicate sensibilities.

My own first memory of this kinetic star was an image on a 27-inch Packard Bell television in our living room. A woman in stirrup pants with a white microphone and a long white cord, gingerly pawing past runway footlights, and words super-imposed on the screen: The Judy Garland Show. I had not yet entered kindergarten, and this was clearly my mother’s favorite TV show. Despite her devotion, and that of a million others, the show was a crashing failure. Judy picks up the fragile Garland’s life four years later. She’s near penniless, deemed a risky hire, emotionally teetering, physically spent from decades of uppers, downers, cigarettes, booze and bad relationships. Ah, but that voice! The brio. The bravura. And Zellweger literally channels her.

No stranger to singing and dancing, as her Oscar-nominated performance in Chicago demonstrated, Zellweger outdoes herself embodying the aspects of Garland’s persona: her ticks, quirks, gestures and vocal inflections. Though her singing voice is short of the raw power Garland’s had, her interpretation is uncanny.

The story dramatizes Garland’s five-week, 1968 engagement at London’s Talk of the Town supper club, a gig that arrives when Garland is at her nadir — she’s had to leave her school-aged children, Lorna and Joey Luft, with ex-husband and nemesis, Sid (Rufus Sewell). To make the London show work, she must also do battle with another enemy: herself. British empresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) is high on her star power, but places a minder, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), in charge of seeing to Judy’s needs, and getting her on stage.

Her eventual fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), years her junior, shows up early on to first brighten Garland’s hope, then leave her disappointed. Director Rupert Goold uses flashbacks at critical points to reveal the teen Garland (Darci Shaw), on the MGM set in the 1930s, manipulated by Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), the martinet mogul who kept her starving and slim, and on a regimen of pills to wake her up and put her to sleep. Those glimpses back, and the disintegrating portrait painted by Zellweger, provide a cause and effect for Garland’s life. That someone so talented could have been so exploited, first by her parents, then by the studio system, is a tale as old as entertainment itself. The film may be a bit pro forma, but that’s an insignificant fact when weighed against Zellweger’s performance.

The Academy Award nominations are about four months away, so there’ll be a glut of highly regarded releases that might eclipse Judy in the memories of Academy voters. No one, however, will forget Zellweger. Garland herself was denied the Oscar for A Star is Born, but Zellweger should be the favorite to win for playing her. Another poignant reality: When the credits rolled at the sold-out matinee I attended, revealing that Garland was only 47 when she died in 1969, a gasp went up from younger members of the audience. Zellweger’s incredible work in Judy is both a love letter, and an education.