“Judy” is a movie of grotesque sentimentality, and I know that sounds like a bad thing, but hear me out. The subject is Judy Garland, who along with Marilyn and Kurt Cobain and a handful of others, is our chief martyr to the bonfire of show business. We mourn her as we celebrate her: the little girl with the big voice who got lost on the way to Oz. The star who always seemed an outcast and gave hope to everyone who felt the same. Sentimentality is just one way of living with your emotions on the outside and to hell with the consequences. A Garland biopic almost has to be embarrassing to work.
This one works, but mostly due to the full-throttle transformation of Renée Zellweger into a great star at the end of her career, a jangle of nerves and show-biz clichés who can still burst into flame onstage. If you saw Judy Davis as Garland in the 2001 miniseries “Me and My Shadows,” you know that’s a performance to beat. Zellweger matches it in her own way, through hair and makeup but mostly by channeling a kind of terrified bravura that’s riveting to watch. This Judy knows she’s an icon, and she knows it does her no good, and it’s all she’s got.
She certainly doesn’t have her children, Lorna and Joey Luft (played by “Game of Thrones” scene stealer Bella Ramsey and Lewin Lloyd). “Judy” opens with Garland returning to her Los Angeles hotel suite from a trip, kids in tow, to be told she’s been evicted for non-payment. Effectively homeless, she’s forced to leave the children with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), who’s angling for full custody. When Judy pops some pills on the way over, Lorna begs her “Please don’t go to sleep, Mom.” “No, no, these are the other ones,” she responds.
Urged to “start earning again” as a way to get her kids back, Judy accepts a five-week gig at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub, run by impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon). It’s 1969, and her reputation as a live performer is mercurial, to say the least. The crowds show up as much to gawk as to cheer.
“Judy” has been directed by Rupert Goold, a British theater director whose films have been few, from a West End play by Peter Quilter. It has been “opened up” with professionalism and taste, if not a great deal of style or imagination, and it asks us to view the incandescent gargoyle that is end-stage Garland through the lens of the injuries of her youth. In flashbacks to the MGM lot, studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) alternates between the velvet glove and the fist to control his teenage starlet, literally leading the young Judy (Darci Shaw) down the Yellow Brick Road between takes of “The Wizard of Oz.” “In every town, there’s a girl who’s prettier than you,” he warns her before bringing in the doctors for the uppers, the downers, and the “vitamin shots” that keep Garland working.
“Mickey? Are we dating?” Judy asks costar Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry) in a diner booth that turns out to be another film set. “I’ve gotta ask Mr. Mayer,” he says, and from there we’re meant to draw the pop-psychology line to the older Garland’s attraction to pretty much anyone who promised her love. In “Judy,” that’s her final husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), an earnestly hip young hustler she meets at a party thrown by daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux). Mickey wants to book her with the Rolling Stones, among other dubious ideas.
Garland arrives in London as both a show-biz legend and a legendary handful, and she proceeds to live up to both reputations. She’s given a young minder, Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley), who’s severely overmatched, and a young bandleader, Burt (Royce Pierreson), who will more than earn his pay. The secondary performances are, again, professional and somewhat remote, as if the actors were afraid to get too near the star for fear of being singed.
And Zellweger gives us the full Judy: the talent, the self-pity, the crazy eyes, the exhaustion, the Getting Up and Doing It When You Just Can’t Do It Anymore. Garland’s first night at the London club promises to be a fiasco until Rosalyn shoves her through the curtain with an “On you go,” and then she’s ON, muscle memory programmed by the doctors at MGM and honed over decades of work. Zellweger does her own singing in “Judy,” and she gets as close to that uncontainable voice and the ache at its center as any human who’s not Judy Garland might reasonably come. Her energy in the nightclub sequences, both on the nights when Garland has it together and the nights when she’s an abusive onstage drunk, is phenomenal. This is an actress who’s never been taken entirely seriously proclaiming her worth on the biggest canvas she can find.
For all the jazz-hands pizzazz, “Judy” finds its heart in two quieter moments. The first is when Garland is taken home and fed a late-night omelette by a gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira), who know from persecution in a country where their sexuality has only recently (and partially) been decriminalized. As the night wears on, she croons a living-room-ballad version of “Get Happy” that is heavy with the knowledge of how impossible happiness can be to come by. And in the film’s shameless yet true final moments, Garland delivers an “Over the Rainbow” that is so hushed it’s almost a benediction — for her, for us, for all the hollow Hollywood dreams propped up by Louis B. Mayer’s lies. Garland’s tragedy was finding and singing the truth in the lies so that she and we could believe them once more, at least for the length of the song. The movie gets that in theory, but it’s Zellweger who turns it into onscreen fact.
Directed by Rupert Goold. Written by Tom Edge, based on a stage play by Peter Quilter. Starring Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 118 minutes. PG-13 (substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking.)