Fred Zinnemann’s Julia is one of those films that I want to like more than I do. A cool, intelligent, handsomely mounted adaptation of a story from Lillian Hellman’s memoirs, Pentimento, it dramatizes the author’s life-long friendship with “Julia” (the identity or even existence of whom remains contentious). Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) is a rich, crusading, gifted woman who eventually becomes involved in anti-fascist activity in Austria and Germany. In a complex structure that moves back and forth between Hellman (Jane Fonda) trying to write The Children’s Hour, her relationship with Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), her childhood with Julia and occasional scenes with the pair of them as adults, we’re meant to recognize how their enduring bond transcends a fraught historical moment.
It’s all very elegant and respectful, with Fonda’s hushed voiceover filling in the gaps, but it never amounts to much. The central incident, in which Hellman smuggles some of Julia’s money into Nazi Germany, is treated as straightforward suspense, but even that is blunted by the recognition that her participation is unnecessary. Since the resistance members are so well organized, it’s not clear why Hellman is needed, suggesting a fair degree of self-dramatization. The fact that Fonda conveys Hellman’s confusion and fear almost too well only adds to our sense of befuddlement.
Much of the action is equally confused and unclear. It was only in this recent viewing, for example, that I realized that Julia is American, not British. And while Hellman and Julia apparently met in school, that is never made explicit. How they met is not a trivial question because if Hellman comes from a background as cosseted as Julia’s, the political pronouncements of both take on a different complexion.
Indeed, the film unintentionally exposes the intolerant sanctimony of the American leftists of whom Hellman was a famous example. Both Fonda and Redgrave (as actresses) seem to take it for granted that we will find their characters entrancing, but is there anything more insufferable than people who assume they are fascinating? While they have some good moments, neither actress is at her best. We don’t see enough of Julia for Redgrave to register strongly, while Fonda is burdened with Hellman’s frankly unattractive personality.
In fact, the most memorable moment in Julia has little to do with the women. It’s a brief, late scene with Hellman’s friend “Sammy” (John Glover) in which he heavily implies a lesbian relationship between she and Julia. When Hellman violently pushes over his chair for daring to suggest such a thing, Julia comes to life briefly. The humor is out of keeping with the rest of the film’s sotto voce reverence, but it suggests what it might have been if the filmmakers were a little less awed by their subject. Julia is always nice to look at, measured, even graceful and there is certainly much to like. It just never fully gels as a compelling experience.