English Title: Miss Julie
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: United Artists/Optimum Releasing
Director: Mike Figgis
Screenplay: Helen Cooper
Cinematographer: Benoit Delhomme
Editor: Matthew Wood
Runtime: 97 minutes
During Midsummer’s Night at a manor house in northern Sweden in 1894, the Count’s daughter, Miss Julie, has joined her servants in dancing. She berates the footman, Jean, who is engaged to a cook named Christine, for not dancing again with her. Miss Julie deigns to spend the night talking in the kitchen with Jean whilst Christine is sleeping, discussing their lives of poverty and privilege, and their dreams. However, following an incident wherein they hide from the other servants, Jean and Julie have sex, and thereafter begin to argue ferociously over their feelings and actions, and plans are made for the pair to flee the estate.
August Strindberg’s 1888 play Fröken Julie cast a significant shadow over the artistic landscape of the twentieth century, not only in the dramatist’s native Sweden but also in a number of different countries and across several mediums. Given its pervasive class-based thematic, Britain unsurprisingly figured prominently among those countries. Strindberg’s play influenced British playwrights including John Osborne and Alan Ayckbourn, and Patrick Marber and Zinnie Harris have updated the play and transposed the action to Britain.
Mike Figgis’ 1999 adaptation of Miss Julie is a faithful, claustrophobic chamber drama that retains the focus of Strindberg’s (almost) single set. However, it is not mere filmed theatre, as was John Glenister and Robin Phillips’ 1972 production featuring Helen Mirren and Donal McCann. Figgis freely intersperses the modes and paradigms of both stage and screen, not only employing the tenets of each but also subtly using them to particular effect. The setting of the kitchen is an overtly-theatrical space, with marked entrances and exits that rupture the action and relationships. Either separately, as in the opening act when Miss Julie (Saffron Burrows) storms in to confront Jean (Peter Mullan), or together, as in the central scene when the drunken servants pour into the kitchen, Jean and Miss Julie are continually interrupted in medias res. The invasion of their space is a potent symbol of the breaking of barriers and boundaries that lies at the heart of the narrative.
Figgis, though, opens out the film visually. He employs a contrasting variety of wide- and narrow-angle lenses, long shots and claustrophobic close-ups, static and hand-held mobile takes to connote the clash of two mutually-exclusive lives. Moreover, he visually denotes the importance of the animalistic sex scene between Miss Julie and Jean, as well as its violent power struggle, by abruptly changing the aspect ratio and employing a split screen to show both protagonists at one and the same time, together but visually wrenched apart, close in flesh but not in spirit.
The implied confinement of the film’s setting entraps the protagonists as completely as the cage around Miss Julie’s beloved pet bird. It is an enclosed world that, despite all the flagrant talk of escape and of social mobility, of flight and of movement, remains entrenched in archaic strictures of class and sex that have been internalized by both Julie and Jean.
Figgis bucks the trend of his peers and refuses to transpose the material; the film, like the play, is very specific about its time and place – Midsummer’s Eve, Northern Sweden, 1894. The midsummer’s eve setting is an important facet of Swedish life, as seen in films like Sommarnattens leende/Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955). In Miss Julie it becomes redolent of an actual, albeit temporary, transformative process. It is a privileged night when boundaries between master and servant are overturned and normalcy is obliterated to allow a cathartic outpouring of jubilant, overzealous feelings.
Familial, sexual, gender and class-based struggles occupy the central battleground of the melodrama genre. Few texts so comprehensively encompass them all, and few adaptations match Figgis’ ambition and intelligence in understanding and reflecting their significance.
Author of this review: Adam Bingham
Peer reviewer: Adam Bingham