The last gasps of Judy Garland's career make for a poignant movie
Renée Zellweger's excellent performance as the late singer could bag the star an Oscar nomination
Awards season wouldn't be awards season without an Oscar bait biopic to tug at the heartstrings and feed our nostalgia for an era that reminds us they just don't make 'em like they used to.
Enter director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge who together with star Renée Zellweger provide us with a solid, if not particularly innovative, but certainly watchable and touching story of the last gasps of the career of America's sweetheart Judy Garland.
Based on End of the Rainbow, a play by Peter Quilter, the film mostly takes place in London in the winter of 1968 — where Garland, beset by financial difficulties and torn from her children by her own obstinate ways and the indifference of her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), has arrived for a five-week engagement at British promoter Bernard Delfont's (Michael Gambon) Talk of the Town nightclub.
The legendary boozing, drugging and temperamental difficulties that have followed Garland over the three decades since she captured the hearts of Wizard of Oz audiences are still very much in evidence.
But, thanks to the empathy of Delfont's assistant Roslyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), the tour seems to be on the road to becoming a success and providing its beleaguered and misunderstood headliner with the financial stability she needs to do the one thing she's dying to do — get back to her children.
Garland's legendary voice is not what it was when she was 16 but she is still the born performer when she needs to be and, as she points out during a promotional television interview, she only needs to be Judy Garland for an hour a night, for the rest of the time she's a human being just like everybody else.
WATCH | The trailer for 'Judy'
That human being is one wracked by the traumas of a childhood lost to the pressures of the studio system and the creepy attentions of mogul Louis B Meyer who monitored every aspect of her life — scenes we see in flashback throughout and which serve as the only glimpses we really have into her life before the London gigs.
For those who know the details of Garland's life there will be aspects that are disappointingly overlooked here — her complicated relationship with her daughter Liza Minelli, the overwhelming extent of her addictions to booze and pills and the deep unhappiness with the rules and regulations of the studio bosses that lead to her blacklisting from the movies for decades.
Zellweger delivers a performance that looks like the real thing but is also more than a simple imitation. It's a performance that pleasantly reminds us of the talent that hasn't disappeared
There is still enough here to make for a compelling look at what, in light of Garland's death six months later in 1969, turned out to be a poignant, final and much mythologised moment in her legend — and it's all pulled off by a dedicated whirlwind, high-energy performance from Zellweger — for whom the role is also something of a comeback.
Over the past decade the actress has been in the public eye more for what she's done to her body to keep herself marketable in the cutthroat patriarchy of the movie industry than for the sporadic roles she's taken up.
Thanks to some clever assistance from wardrobe and makeup and a knack for the mimicry of Garland's grownup child-star voice and tics — Zellweger delivers a performance that looks like the real thing but is also more than a simple imitation. It's a performance that pleasantly reminds us of the talents that won over audiences in films like Chicago, Cold Mountain and Bridget Jones' Diary — talent that hasn't disappeared so much as missing from screens for too long.
She may not have the vocal dazzle needed for reincarnating even a not-at-her-best Garland but she gamely gives her best and does the right thing by singing her own songs.
With a Golden Globe on her mantlepiece and the announcement of the Oscar nominations tomorrow, don't be surprised if Zellweger is in line to win a second statue for a performance that reminds us that no matter how low you may feel, there's always something, somewhere, over the rainbow to dream of and strive for.
• Judy is currently on circuit.