Wednesday 16 September 2009

Julie and Julia

Last Monday afternoon in Zürich just about everything closed down for some kind of shooting competition for boys. Not sure what they were shooting – just hope it wasn’t other boys. Anyway, given the limited options we decided to go to the movies and the pick of the bunch appeared to be Julie and Julia. And a very good choice it turned out to be.

Written and directed by Nora Ephron, this is a lovely feel good movie, based on not just one, but two true stories. Unusually the characters in the two stories never really overlap or meet. The film starts in New York in 2002 and introduces us to Julie Powell who is thoroughly fed up with her life. She would like to be a writer but currently works in a call centre, answering the calls of people still suffering from the after effects of the 9/11 tragedy. The only saving grace in Julie’s life is her love of cooking. One evening her husband suggests she starts her own blog about her love of cooking. Which she does and to make it even more of a challenge she decides to cook every recipe in the classic (at least to Americans) cookery book – Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie’s story takes us through the ups and downs of the year she spends completing her challenge.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking was in part written by Julia Child and the second story is about the ups and downs in her decade long attempt to learn how to cook and then get her book published. This section of the film covers the immediate post second world war period and is set mostly in Paris, where Julia is the rich wife of an American diplomat. Like Julie, Julia is also thoroughly fed up with her life and is determined to find something useful to do. She loves eating and decides to learn to cook professionally, which she does successfully and in the process gets involved with two other women in composing a book on French cooking for American housewifes. This project takes much much longer than expected, but eventually in the early 1960s she does succeed and becomes something of a diva in the world of American cooking.

The two stories unfold some 50 years apart and in different continents, but the film goes back and forth between the various scenes from Julie and Julia’s lives. And of course the book on Mastering the Art of French Cooking provides a continuing and meaningful link between the two stories. Though the essence of the film is the struggle of two women in different eras to make something of their lives, the situations of each character could not be more different.

Julie’s life is pretty miserable. She works in a very stressful job in a nondescript open plan office in which she spends all her working day in a tiny little cubicle masquerading as her workstation. Her supportive husband works for an architecture magazine and it is clear that neither earns much in the way of money. In consequence they live in a tiny apartment in Queen’s, above a pizzeria and beside a very noisy road. It is in this environment with her tiny kitchen that Julie sets about making all the 524 recipes from Julia’s book. All in the space of one year.

On the other hand Julia leads what most people would imagine is an almost idyllic life. With rich parents and a well off husband she can do pretty much what she wants. And in the film she is always shown in opulent surroundings. She does of course have to overcome a variety of prejudices against women making their own way in the world – an even more daunting challenge in the 40s and 50s than today.

Though this is essentially a feel good comedy, the film does not shy away from showing the darker side of America, past and present. The working and living environment of Julie in the early years of the present millenium does not present America in a very flattering light. Long stressful hours, cramped and uncomfortable living conditions are not much of a recompense for working professionals. In the case of Julia, they live through the McCarthy years and this forms the background to their movements. Her husband is even recalled to Washington to face a grilling about his views and acquaintances. All this provides the film with just enough worldly realism to counterbalance its predominantly positive message.

All films depend to a large extent on the cast and in this case all the actors are excellent. Amy Adams and Chris Messina as Julie and her husband Eric, make a fine couple with senstive portrayals. Amy Adams in particular gives an engaging and convincing performance which shows Julie as someone who is both energetic and always on the edge. It is however the other pairing who steal the show. Stanley Tucci gives a stellar performance as Paul Child. This is an understated and subtle performance which conveys Paul’s loving and ever attentive support to Julia, but nevertheless manges to portray Paul as a man of substance in his own right. It is though, Meryl Streep who dominates the film with a magisterial performance. She radiates her presence throughout every scene she is in and from those who knew the real Julia, Meryl Streep has succeeded in presenting a convincing representation of her mannerisms. There is a haughtiness and grandeur to her performance which seems to me to capture the rich American abroad to perfection. The Julia character is though a really nice person, full of charm, warmth and love. It is almost as though she sails through life somewhat above the mundane tribulations of the rest of us.

Before watching this film, beware! The meals which are shown in their full glory require copious amounts of real butter, cream and wine. Red meat features a lot as well. I’m a little surprised that in the UK and America the film hasn’t come with a government health warning. Still for the rest of us – Bon Appetit!

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