That thought is worth keeping in mind while watching Liv Ullmann’s austere screen adaptation of the play, which has been relocated from Sweden to Ireland during the same period.
This version has three characters: Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain), the beautiful daughter of a wealthy baron; John (Colin Farrell), her father’s ambitious, beady-eyed valet; and Kathleen (Samantha Morton), the long-suffering cook of the house and John’s churchgoing fiancée, whom he treats with lordly condescension.
The patriarchal world of August Strindberg’s dour late-19th-century tragedy “Miss Julie” — with its rigid social hierarchy of masters and servants, and its entrenched puritanical ethos — may seem remote to Americans.
But when you remember that there are still societies in which men rule with an iron hand, and women are stoned to death for breaking convention, it doesn’t seem so distant.
This household is a closed system, and its atmosphere is intensely claustrophobic.
It is Midsummer’s Eve, and the baron is away but soon to return.Morton, so good at women churning on the inside — the young war widow in “The Messenger,” the insistent cancer warrior in “Decoding Annie Parker” — does carefully contained work in “Miss Julie.” The barest tightening of her lips, the tension in her shoulders, speak of surviving within the class lines drawn around her.Chastain, in contrast, lets Julie and her emotions come undone.The baron is due back the next day, so there are meals to plan, boots to shine and other metaphors about one’s relative status in life to polish. Julie is fresh and flitting in and out, making demands, perfuming the air with her arrogance and entitlement. Warm and at ease with Kathleen, tense and touchy with Julie.Whether they’ve played these games before is a mystery, but on this night things escalate quickly.But the heat that should saturate the film as betrayals mount and boundaries are broken flickers and dies many times over “Miss Julie’s” languid two-plus hours.As the film opens, John has just returned to the country estate.The comely mistress of the manor is hot and bothered, the homely cook is cool and collected, and the dashing valet is desired by both.In “Miss Julie,” an Irish period piece of class divides, sexual politics and power games, things will end badly, one suspects, though the denouement still shocks.Watching Farrell’s attitude adjustments as John reacts to each of the women is like witnessing a chameleon change colors.Pragmatic Kathleen and presumptuous Julie may be divided by social class, but they are both women on a mission.