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Being Julia

Published: Thursday, Nov. 18 2004 4:08 p.m. MST

Annette Bening is having the time of her life being Julia, an aging stage beauty in 1930s London on a mission of wickedly joyous retaliation against a rival and the conniving men in her life.

A dynamo of a performance by Bening goes a long way to making a good show of "Being Julia," an otherwise skin-deep comic drama about a woman of a certain age striking back against the forces of society and nature that threaten to put her out to pasture.

Lacking any real insights about celebrity culture and its obsession with youth, this adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel "Theatre" hangs almost entirely on Bening's commitment to the role, and she delivers admirably.

Bening plays Julia Lambert, the toast of the London stage, who senses her best years are behind her. Her marriage to theater producer Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) has grown sour and loveless, and she knows her leading-lady days are fading as her wrinkles deepen.

Julia is just going through the motions at home and on stage, joking with icy humor that soon there will be nothing left for her but theater tours of Australia and Canada.

Her personal and professional yearnings are aroused by the attentions of a younger man, Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), a visiting American smitten with Julia. The two begin a reckless affair that reinvigorates Julia's passion for acting.

But Tom grows bored and moves on to young stage wannabe Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch). Salting the wound, Tom urges Julia to consider Avice for a role in her upcoming play.

A performer to the marrow, Julia takes Avice under her wing with a benevolence that's all the more surprising after she discovers her young rival also engaged in some inappropriate behavior with husband Michael.

Is Julia growing old with grace or setting everyone up for the performance of a lifetime?

Director Istvan Szabo and his technical crew skillfully re-create prewar London with lavish costumes and a rich texture to the sets.

Bening gets fine support all around from her co-stars, particularly Irons, who brings great energy to a comparatively small role. Juliet Stevenson projects wry charm as Julia's aide and confidante, and Michael Gambon steals his few scenes as a figment of Julia's imagination, the fantasy incarnation of her early mentor.

This is Bening's show, though. The story is such a vanity affair, with little authentic emotional resonance at its core, that the movie could have been nothing more than an exercise in narcissism without Bening's wile, guile and zeal.

"Being Julia" is rated R for some sexuality. Running time: 104 minutes.

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