As the leading actress of the '30s London theater scene in Being Julia, Annette Bening never looks more alive than when she peers out at her audience for applause. She wears an expression of such undimmed vibrancy that on all other occasions, she can't help but look wan. Perhaps that's why she treats even her most intimate moments as performances tailored to a smaller arena. Recalling the instruction of her late teacher (Michael Gambon, whose spirit pops in periodically à la Obi-Wan Kenobi), she finds she has little use for "what civilians call 'the real world,'" or at least not enough to treat it as anything but an extension of the stage.
Her approach works well enough. The public loves her even when she knows she's not challenging herself. She and husband/producer Jeremy Irons exchange affectionate air-kisses and look the other way while conducting separate private lives. Bening is halfway through her 40s, and passion may have left her life, but matters could be worse. Enter Shaun Evans, an admiring, penniless young American with a fixation on the leading lady he first saw at age 14. Evans invites Bening to his one-room apartment, reminds her of her youth by getting her to recall plugging coins into the gas meter for heat when she first moved to London, gets her to drop her affected speech, and, with little warning, draws her into an affair of such heated passion that she fails to notice the signs that he might be acting, as well.
Bening plays a character of layers upon layers, and she seems to have thoroughly considered each one of them. She's a pleasure to watch, thanks partly to her refusal to telegraph how much her character knows and how much she's keeping to herself at any given moment. The film around her shows less consideration. Adapted from the W. Somerset Maugham novel Theatre and directed by Sunshine's István Szabó, it looks handsome but seems infected by the idea of playing different roles; a comedy in one scene, it adopts a mood of a high seriousness the next and clutters the stage with minor characters that contribute little. In the end, this inability to make up its mind does the film in. Szabó treats Bening's character as a figure of fun and an object of pity, but it never lets her develop into a human being, even while suggesting that such an evolution might be the story's whole point. She may come to realize that people other than poor civilians occupy the real world, but Being Julia never lets her join them.