Starring: Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards
Director: Fred Zinnemann
This adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s memoir, set in the 1930s against the rise of Nazism, was much criticized upon its release for downplaying the lesbianism of the central relationship, but the reticence of Alvin Sargent’s script now looks like a strength. For that matter, it doesn’t spell out the other key irony of the story either: that while the Jewish Lillian concentrates on writing plays and achieving fame and fortune on Broadway, it’s her childhood friend, Julia, an upper crust Wasp and brilliant medical student, who drops out to fight Fascism and disappears into a world of cloak and dagger.
Fonda’s Lillian is a bit of a drag early on, as she makes more fuss about trying to bang out a hit play on her typewriter than Julia does about fending off murderous blackshirts in Vienna, but she comes into her own later on in the tense highlight of the film when, surrounded by suspicious characters, she travels to Berlin by train, smuggling cash for Julia’s cause inside the lining of her hat. This culminates in a meeting between Lillian and Julia in which Vanessa Redgrave is extraordinary, catching this brave woman’s odd mix of nobility and manipulativeness. The hollow ache of losing a loved one to a cause, the feelings of rejection this leads to, has never been better captured on screen, but then again, you wonder, maybe Julia was doing all this for Lillian, as a very personal act of love? The high-gloss cinematography and luxe set-dressing come across well on this sharp DVD transfer.