[Written for Amazon.com]
The fascination of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, as play or film, resides in the quicksilver shifts of power and vulnerability, assurance and desperation, seducer and seducee, almost from line to line — in the text and, ideally, in the performances of two equally matched actors. One Midsummer’s Eve, in the scullery of a country manor, the aristocratic daughter of the house and the major-domo Jean conduct a kind of mating dance on a killing ground. Each is clearly attracted to the other; each, just as clearly, resents and despises the other. Jean wants revenge for a lifetime serving “betters” whom — so he believes — he outstrips in enterprise and imagination. Miss Julie craves more or less equally the thrill of bringing him off his high horse and rolling around in the mud with him.
Alf Sjöberg’s 1950 film, an instant classic, marked a breakthrough in translating theatrical stylization to the screen. Mike Figgis’s 1999 version is at once more pumped-up and more prosaic. Sending his Super-16 cameras whirling around the single set — and at one point indulging in a spasm of split-screen folderol — Figgis bids to update Strindberg’s class warfare theme with a greater emphasis on gender politics. Unfortunately, although Peter (My Name Is Joe) Mullan catches every self-contradictory wrinkle in Jean’s sub-Nietzschean soul, Figgis’s preferred leading lady Saffron Burrows brings little to the party beyond awesome cheekbones and an unmanning superiority in height. A gutsy try, but not quite a Miss Julie for the millennium.