Playwright August Strindberg’s complex drama about sexual politics and the class struggle was once outlawed in his native Sweden because of its daring sexual content. Although written in the 1890s, its universal themes resonate in the 1990s; the tug-of-war between men and women, rich and poor has changed little in a hundred years.
Helmed by director Mike Figgis, this latest screen adaptation of the controversial Miss Julie eschews the standard lush lighting and airy froth of most period pieces in favor of gritty hand-held Super 16mm cinematography set in the close quarters of a count’s kitchen. The effect recaptures the claustrophobic nature of Strindberg’s play, paring the meat of the film down to the marrow.
At a Midsummer’s Night celebration held for the Count’s servants, Miss Julie (Saffron Burrows) begins a highly inappropriate flirtation with the footman, Jean (Peter Mullan). Embarrassed and afraid of hurting his secret lover Christine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the Count’s cook, Jean initially balks, but Miss Julie persists. Her dangerous coquetry backfires on her as Jean gives in to her advances and, as we soon discover, entraps her with his own Machiavellian designs.
The interplay within the twisted love triangle crackles with urgency, pain and raw sexual passion. Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan deliver top-notch performances as the tempestuous lovers, and Maria Doyle Kennedy is outstanding as the stern voice-of-reason. Figgis, known for pushing the envelope with such films as Stormy Monday, Leaving Las Vegas and The Loss Of Sexual Innocence, is unrelenting in presenting the dizzying circumstances of sexual tension, betrayal and power plays the characters find themselves ensnared by as they reveal their true feelings and intentions.