If you unfocused your vision a little, you would absolutely believe you were watching Judy Garland and not Renée Zellweger walk down that hallway and onto the stage.

Zellweger is effervescent as the legendary entertainer in Judy, embodying Garland's full physicality and emotional vulnerability.

Capturing the essence and magnetic presence of Garland is far from an easy feat given the indelible impression she left behind through her movies and hours of other footage. Any portrayal invites an almost impossible comparison.

Renee Zellweger has risen beyond mimicry of Judy Garland.
Renee Zellweger has risen beyond mimicry of Judy Garland.

But Zellweger has risen beyond mimicry, she made the role her own while remaining true to what we know of Garland and what her legacy means to her fans. Watching Zellweger in that spiky wig with those sad eyes is a pleasure.

Advertisement

If the Texan star isn't nominated for an Oscar for her stunning performance, then there is something very wrong with the voters.

It's a shame then that Judy the movie isn't nearly as good as Zellweger, but you have to give the film and director Rupert Goold credit for creating a canvas in which Zellweger can play, sing and shine.

Set in the final months before Garland's death in 1969, desperate and broke, Garland takes on a five-week engagement in London where she can still be well paid.

There's not much of a story to follow in Judy, it's really a character study of this icon who grew up and grew old in front of the whole world.
There's not much of a story to follow in Judy, it's really a character study of this icon who grew up and grew old in front of the whole world.

The time in London means time away from her kids, Lorna and Joey, but without even a permanent address in the US, Garland knows she has little choice if she wants to keep her kids.

But nothing is ever simple for Garland. Battling drug addiction, loneliness and insecurity, some nights she wows the crowd and other nights she really doesn't.

Garland has no real friends, just the minder Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) and band leader Burt (Royce Pierreson), which makes her susceptible to the erratic charms of soon-to-be husband number five Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock).

There's not much of a story to follow in Judy, it's really a character study of this icon who grew up and grew old in front of the whole world. Even Garland fans will find something revelatory in Zellweger's performance.

Capturing the essence and magnetic presence of Judy Garland is far from an easy feat given the indelible impression she left behind.
Capturing the essence and magnetic presence of Judy Garland is far from an easy feat given the indelible impression she left behind.

Zellweger manages to play all these conflicting traits of Garlands — vulnerability and strength, dismissiveness and tenderness — without making her a contradiction. The character, this real person, feels authentic and knowable.

Advertisement

Judy paints a portrait of a person who's been both exploited her whole life but also responsible for many of her problems. And the movie is so empathetic, it never judges her.

It swings between the desolate moments when she's alone and the triumphs onstage — here Zellweger sings and dances as if she studied under Garland herself. Zellweger isn't a traditionally trained vocalist, but she's used those pipes before for Chicago and she manages to hit some extraordinary notes here.

The film is set in the final months before Judy Garland's death in 1969.
The film is set in the final months before Judy Garland's death in 1969.

Goold tries to give Zellweger and Garland their dues, often holding those stage performance shots longer than expected. When she belts out the Trolley Song, it's magical.

But, Judy doesn't match its star's performance. The movie is often overwrought and melodramatic and some of the cues of its score are very on the nose.

Goold's experience is primarily in theatre productions, and Judy is adapted from a stage play, End of the Rainbow, which explains why the film often feels stagey — oftentimes its only vibrancy emanating from Zellweger's performance.

Battling drug addiction, loneliness and insecurity, some nights Judy wows the crowd and other nights she really doesn't.
Battling drug addiction, loneliness and insecurity, some nights Judy wows the crowd and other nights she really doesn't.

There's also a reliance on flashbacks to Garland's childhood at MGM that pushed the schmaltz too far. Anyone who is going to this movie knows Garland had a hard time her whole life, manipulated by adults who saw her only as a cash cow, practically jamming those drugs down her throat.

Weaving these flashbacks into the film is unnecessary and makes Garland seem more pitiable than she would've wanted.

But this is a movie that showcases Zellweger's considerable talents, and for that alone, Judy is worth the price of entry.

Judy opens in cinemas in New Zealand on October 17.