It could have been an over-the-top disaster. Or a cheeky send-up. It could have been a snooze. Instead, it is a devastatingly under-stated portrait of genius and loneliness.
What stays with you in Renee Zellweger's fearless embodiment of Judy Garland in "Judy" is the eyes - the fire that burns in them when she is on stage in front of an adoring (or at times not-so-adoring audience) and the weariness in them when she is not. What the film and that performance do is something quite unexpected, they peel away the star trappings and reveal the fragile person inside. And that is quite unlike most biopics that bounce off the glassy surface of their celebrity. Here, the camera is unmercifully close to the eyes of its subject, and lingers there. And we experience the emotional injuries, the terrible loneliness and the harrowing fear of what it is like to be an icon.
You will hear a lot about how this is an Oscar worthy performance by Zellweger. But what most critics won't tell you - focused too much on the horse-race handicapping of the award - is why. The why is in the bravery of a performance that is so vulnerable as to be an open wound. Yes there are moments of thrilling triumph in the London stage performances, but they are no match for the pain of watching Renee/Judy pluckishly trying to overcome a broken life in full view of a tabloid world.
Judy Garland was not a great singer, a great dancer, a great actor or a great beauty. What she had was a great big heart. And when she sang that big heart of hers was full to bursting with raw emotion -- thrilling and exhausting and completely devoid of artifice. And Zellweger uncannily captures this -- the raw genius that fueled Judy's stardom.
Other parts of the film are not as successful, falling into many of the traps of the celebrity biopic, with incomplete relationships, ancillary characters and too much pop psychology. But these are quibbles next to Renee Zellweger's career-defining performance. It's in those gorgeous eyes. Those haunting, gorgeous eyes.