This dramatization of Judy Garland's five-week residency at London's Talk of the Town nightclub, just a few months before her death in 1969, rises above the standard fair-to-middling level of biopics thanks to two things: Renée Zellweger's brilliant portrayal of Garland... and a pervasive awkwardness that never quite goes away.
This awkwardness – weird pauses in the dialogue, stiff reactions from various characters – may not work for some audience members. But I think it accurately conveys the difficulties of dealing with a substance-abusing Hollywood legend. A key scene occurs on opening night: Minutes before showtime, a drunk, exhausted, unrehearsed Garland is yanked out of her hotel room, thrown into makeup and wardrobe, and literally pushed onto the stage by her handler (Jessie Buckley), while she protests the whole time. But with the crowd applauding and the spotlight on her, she instantly snaps into professional mode and begins singing her hit "By Myself". Yet it's a rote, automatic recital – the song comes out as if propelled by muscle memory alone. With Zellweger's eyes wide with terror and confusion, her scrawny frame reeling across the stage just to keep upright, you truly get a sense of what show business did to Judy Garland's mind and body.
Less successful, then, are the numerous flashbacks to the 1930s and '40s, which detail the young Garland's grueling years in Hollywood. The thing is, Zellweger's work in the 1968-69 scenes tells Garland's whole story, negating the need for scenes in which teenage Judy is not allowed to eat, teenage Judy has to sleep on the soundstage, teenage Judy is creeped on by Louis B. Mayer. (In the role, British actress Darci Shaw comes across as too meek; like most child stars, the real Garland was likely a full-fledged cynic by sixteen.)
These flashback scenes, frankly, feel like padding, and if Judy has a problem in general, it's that it's overlong. Judy Garland became a wreck of a human being: how much time do you need to explain that? Clocking in at nearly two hours, and without much of a plot, Judy at times feels like punishment to watch: all you can think of is, That poor woman. She can't take much more of this misery, and neither can I.
Still, see the film for Zellweger's remarkable work. It's not only her physical transformation that convinces (although every once in a while she purses her famous bee-stung lips and you're reminded of who you're actually watching), it's how well she conveys Judy Garland's absolute brokenness.