The Judy Garland of Judy is not the fresh-faced child star of The Wizard of Oz, nor the larger-than-life performer who filled concert halls for decades. Both of those Judys show up in the movie, but director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge (adapting the Tony-nominated play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter) are interested in the contrast between Garland’s public image and the personal struggles she endured for her entire life. Taking place mostly in the last year of Garland’s short life (she died in 1969 at age 47), Judy is both a triumph and a tragedy, showing how Garland persevered in the face of addiction, abuse and neglect, but also how she consistently sabotaged her own chances at success and happiness.
The movie opens with a young Judy (Darci Shaw) asking imposing studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) for a little more down time on the set of The Wizard of Oz, only to be threatened with a return to Midwestern obscurity. Giving in to the demands of powerful men in Hollywood becomes a dominant theme in Judy’s life, and when the story moves ahead to 1968 (with Judy now played by Renée Zellweger), she’s still at the mercy of managers, lawyers and bookers, barely able to make enough money to take care of her two young children with ex-husband (and ex-manager) Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). Her volatile behavior and dependence on drugs and alcohol have kept her from landing any film roles, and the only job offer she has is for a run of nightclub shows in London.
Although all she wants is to stay home with daughter Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and son Joey (Lewin Lloyd), Judy heads off to London, where she performs shows that are alternately dazzling and disastrous, depending on her state of mind and her level of inebriation. Zellweger, who’s barely acted onscreen in the last decade, gives a powerhouse performance as Judy, and she’s the main reason to watch the movie, both in the show-stopping musical numbers and in the heart-wrenching intimate moments. Zellweger never takes her performance too far, and while Garland was an outsize personality who loved drawing attention to herself, Zellweger’s performance is only showy in service of the character’s own showiness.
Zellweger so dominates the movie that there’s barely anything else to it, and the supporting players, including Finn Wittrock as Judy’s fifth husband Mickey Deans and Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley as a sympathetic assistant hired by the concert venue, don’t have a whole lot to do. The plot arc between Judy and Mickey is especially thin, running through a whole biopic’s worth of showbiz-relationship clichés within only a handful of scenes. The opening scene between Mayer and young Judy effectively establishes the pattern that Judy followed for her entire life, and subsequent flashbacks to her early Hollywood career only serve to belabor the point. When Zellweger can convey a lifetime of compromise and regret in a single look, the extra exposition seems superfluous.
Even so, it’s all stylishly staged, and while Goold (a veteran theater director) is no Vincente Minnelli or Busby Berkeley, he brings energy and flair to the scenes of Judy performing onstage, complete with showgirls and an impeccably attired backing band. There are moments that give in to biopic conventions, whether for the sake of condensing events or of generating an emotional response from the audience, but for the most part Judy feels raw and real, a messy portrait of a woman who was under constant pressure to embody glamorous perfection.