It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Julia" is the story of a fascinating woman, told from the point of view of someone who hardly knew her. That is, I realize, an unkind judgment against Lillian Hellman, whose wartime memoirs provide the inspiration for the story. But this movie's problems start with its point of view, and it never quite recovers from them.
The film is structured as a tribute to a memory. We hear the voice of Jane Fonda, as Lillian Hellman, telling us about this great friend of her youth, and how Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) grew up to become a brave and doomed woman. All very well, but the film never really establishes a relationship between the two women; instead, it documents an attitude. To Lillian, Julia is a goddess. But what is Lillian to Julia? A courier, in the movie's long central scene: Lillian is recruited to carry large sums of Julia's money into pre-war Germany, to buy the freedom of several hundred Jews and other prisoners. But even here, in a scene in a Vienna cafe that contains the longest of the movie's rare stretches of dialogue between Julia and Lillian, confidences are not really exchanged. Julia, who seems to be acting as she feels an Eric Ambler heroine should, doesn't reveal herself except in a sort of understated, heroic posture.
It's awkward, the way the movie has to suspend itself between Julia -- its ostensible subject -- and Lillian Hellman, its real subject. Jane Fonda provides an interesting portrait of the young woman playwright who banged out her frustrations on the typewriter, who chain-smoked, who drank too much (and lived with Dashiell Hammett, who also drank too much) and who eventually became the legend we know today. We like this Lillian so much, indeed, that we wouldn't at all mind a whole movie about her.
But, no, the movie pretends to be about Julia. And so we get romantic flashbacks, and heroic musings on the sound track, and the one story trying to fit into the other and splitting its seams. The movie's central weakness betrays itself when we compare its two relationships. The one between Lillian and "Dash" is basically intended as background and atmosphere, I suppose, but Fonda and Jason Robards, Jr., make it real. They bring dimensions to it: When Hammett finally bestows his blessings on one of Hellman's plays, we believe the moment.