Not all servant /master relationships can match the jolly familiarity of the residents of Downton Abbey. August Strindberg’s 1888 play, adapted for the screen by Liv Ullman, paints a far more vicious and resentful portrait of life in a palatial country home. Set on a baron’s estate in Ireland, this is the story of nobleman’s daughter Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain), who, with her father away, is on the prowl for entertainment. And she’s got her eye fixed on John (Colin Farrell), the baron’s valet. Never mind that John is engaged to pious cook Kathleen (Samantha Morton); it doesn’t stop either party from engaging in a lurid seduction that rockets back and forth between affection and rejection in a dizzying sexual power play. Ullmann’s changes to Strindberg’s uncomfortably misogynist text are largely cosmetic and her direction fails to expand the adaptation far beyond that of a filmed stage play.
‘Miss Julie’ is packed with the types of riotous monologues that are largely confined to the stage, giving each member of its tight ensemble ample opportunity for some show-stopping scene-chewing. It’s a testament to the talents of the cast that, despite the melodramatic shouting matches, they’re able to keep these characters from flying off the screen. It’s only through Chastain’s radiant and layered performance that the selfish and troubled Miss Julie becomes a character worthy of pity rather than ire.