The heroine of this fun 2004 movie is a famous stage actress, Julia Lambert (Annette Bening), who lives in London in the 1930s and finds herself in the midst of middle age and bored with her successful life. She is married to her director and manager, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons in a rather more cheerful and less depraved turn than we are accustomed to seeing from him), but their marriage is, as he says, "terribly modern", which apparently means that they sleep around. Julia has a long-standing relationship with Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood), the exact nature of which is rather surprisingly revealed partway through the movie. But how she really diverts herself is by becoming infatuated with a callow and star-struck young American, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans). Julia throws herself into the affair, allowing herself to become transported into a giddy state of longing and abandon that recalls her exciting youth.
Other characters include Julia's now-dead mentor, Jimmie Langton (played by the venerable Michael Gambon - that's Sir Michael Gambon to you!), who appears from time to time to remind her of the pearls of wisdom he once imparted to her; Evie (Juliet Stevenson), Julia's maid, who is loyal to the end yet unafraid to tartly comment on her mistress's antics; and Avice Chrichton (Lucy Punch), the ambitious young actress who wants to learn from - or replace? - the aging diva Julia. (All About Eve, anyone?)
But this movie is all Bening's, and she plays it beautifully. I kept thinking, as I watched her brilliant comedic performance, that she must have jumped for joy when she read the script, for there aren't many good roles for a woman her age, and this one is a peach. Julia is dramatic and histrionic as any great actress should be, by turns vulnerable and tough, luminous and distraught. Bening deservedly was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.
The movie is based on the novel Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham and is ably directed by István Szabó; many of the interior shots were filmed in his native Hungary. I haven't read the novel, so can't comment on how well the screenplay (by Ronald Harwood) captures the original: in the movie, at least, most of the characters are uni-dimensional, and they pale in comparison to Julia herself - but maybe that was intentional. It's not a great movie, but it's worth seeing on the strength of Bening's performance alone: it's a tour de force for a great actor. And the ending, which I won't give away, is delicious. Recommended.