The unlikely battleground of Miss Julie, Mike Figgis’ searing film version of August Strindberg’s button-pushing play, is the kitchen of a 19th century Swedish manor house. It’s the festive midsummer night, and the count is away. With his authoritative presence removed, a dance of seduction commences between his daughter, Miss Julie (Saffron Burrows), and manservant, Jean (Peter Mullan).
What begins as a flirtation soon turns deadly serious because, even in Helen Cooper’s contemporized adaptation, there’s no hiding Strindberg’s agenda: class warfare. Miss Julie isn’t a romance of reconciliation à la Jane Austen, but a razor-sharp dissection of what happens to people who forget their place.
Christine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the manor’s cook and Jean’s lover, believes in the social chain of command as firmly as she embraces the hierarchical piety of the church. Her certainty is in sharp contrast to the vague desires of Julie and Jean, each of whom longs to break free of predestination. They do so at their own peril.
Miss Julie isn’t merely a treatise on the destructive caste system. These are two immensely complex and flawed characters: Julie’s mother instilled a sexual rebellion in her that doesn’t mesh with either the social conditioning of women or the intense pain she feels after her fiance’s infidelities; a social climber always on the make, Jean is also a strangely compelling utopian who sees wealth as his earthly redemption.
Director Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, Internal Affairs) and the marvelous cinematographer Benoit Delhomme circle the actors with handheld cameras, creating an intense intimacy. The screen even divides into two views of Julie and Jean’s furtive coupling, this pivotal moment made all the more haunting by the distinct views of these two in-sync voyeurs (Figgis also wrote the score, and his compelling chamber music heightens the film’s disquieting tone).
Saffron Burrows’ majestic beauty makes Julie’s fragility all the more tragic, and Peter Mullan (My Name is Joe) turns his unimposing facade to his advantage, making Jean fired from within by ruthless ambition.
Through his performers’ voices – Kennedy’s Irish lilt, Mullan’s Scottish growl, Burrows’ crisp Queen’s English – Mike Figgis incorporates into his marvelous Miss Julie a potent reminder that the class distinctions August Strindberg documented a century ago have not yet left us.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.