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A tale of amorous folly and revenge set in the world of the London stage in the 1930s. As reigning diva Julia Lambert's (Annette Bening) success and fame grow suddenly wearisome, she begins a passionate May-December affair with Tom (Shaun Evans), a young American. When she discovers Tom is just a young social climber whose real passion is an ambitious young starlet (Lucy Punch), Julia begins to plot a delightful revenge. Co-starring Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon and Juliet Stevenson. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), based on the novel Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by István Szabó (Sunshine).

 Being Julia

There was a time when I was trying to work out whether feature films had some attribute that no other form of art was able to provide. Does the moving picture give us something original, something that endows it with a singular quality? Or is film only a mixture of other art forms, making use of their values? Finally I realised that film does have one singular quality that no other art form can supply. The moving picture is capable of showing us a living human face in close-up: this ability is the source of its special energy. Film is capable of showing the birth of an emotion or a thought and its changing–mirrored in the expression. One can only show the changing of the human face through moving pictures: how love turns into jealousy, how a newly born thought is mirrored in the eyes. Only the moving picture can show life’s beautiful changes, the constant movements of the human expression in the most intimate moment, in the moment of its birth.

A living face showing emotional changes and its connection with another living face, and their connection with the environment, nature, society and the world–this is film. Everything else can be described in writing, can be painted, danced or sung–but the secrets of the face shown in intimate close-ups can only be witnessed on the big or small screen. And if this is indeed true, it means that the energy of film is carried by the face appearing on the screen. And if this is true in its turn, then it means that the history of the moving picture is the history of living faces and expressions. And if we accept that, we understand that the energy and strength of a feature film is supplied by the face of the actor or actress and the face of his/her antagonist. The actor playing the protagonist is someone the audience can identify with, someone who embodies the secret desires and emotions of the audience, someone who, through himself, makes a connection between the audience and the writer’s and director’s concept. It’s the actor’s or the actress’ charismatic power that attracts the audience and gives credibility to the truth of the story.

This is why I believe that the fate of a film is decided by casting. Who will represent the suffering and joy of the audience, his struggle with himself and the world? Shall we see, shall we understand the emotions of the protagonist in the moment of their birth and the way they keep changing? Shall we see the glimmer in their eyes as a thought or a feeling is born? Shall we see his or her face in close-up in the decisive moments, so we can identify with him or her and understand what the actor expresses? Because a close-up showing an emotion being born or a thought changing in front of our eyes is as valuable as a diamond.

In the film Being Julia, like in all our previous films, the close-ups were the most important for us: we wanted to concentrate on actors’ faces. In this story, where everybody wants to live up to expectations, a certain type of behaviour, formalities–i.e., the characters are wearing “masks”–we were trying to find a way to see behind those masks.

The tale is set amongst imagined masks and real-life mirrors. The masks are there for eventual revelation, the mirrors are there so we can face ourselves. And this is a struggle. The struggle takes place within us. And the battlefield of this fight is the face of the actor.

–Budapest, August 2004