Hope my American and Canadian readers enjoyed their Independence Day or Canada Day! If you saw my Instagram, you know mine was rip-roaring. 🙂
Anyway, may I introduce a companion to the new “Page To Screen” series: “Stage To Screen.” Like “Page,” “Stage” will cover works that have been adapted for the screen, only plays instead of books, obviously. There’s no special reason why we’re starting with Miss Julie except that it’s on Netflix, and I wanted to get the review in now in case it disappeared. So, without further ado…
Class differences are a tempting topic for storytellers, because the conflict writes itself. People who cross social lines are inevitably fish out of water, highlighting the foibles and modus operandi of whatever world they’ve been thrown into. One story of this type is Swedish expat August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, which has been made into a film several times, such as the 2014 version starring Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain. This interpretation of Miss Julie has been criticized for sticking too close to the play, which it does, but it doesn’t.
The plot of Miss Julie isn’t at all complicated: The titular character seduces Jean, her father’s valet. Or does Jean seduce Julie? Either way, they each have to deal with the consequences of their actions. The time of the year is midsummer, which, legend dictates, puts everyone on edge. Jean and his fiance, Kathleen (Samantha Morton), are in their own working-class world, spending their days in the kitchen and in their prescribed areas when they’re not wanted upstairs. Jean dreams of traveling to Europe and Kathleen hangs on his every word. They are happy and contented, not wanting much, if anything, to do with the upper class world, which they see as aspirational but separate. Jean in particular regards his place in relation to the upper class as looking up at a falcon flying–the lower classes can never see the falcon’s upper side. However, the upper class world invades when Julie comes into the kitchen to see how her dog took the broth she told Kathleen to feed him.
Julie is spoiled and silly, but she has traces of good in her. When Kathleen explains her concern for Julie’s dog, Julie gives the dog to her. She genuinely wants to get to know everyone around her, no matter their class. Still, when Julie gets it in her head that she wants Jean, she plays with him like a cat does a mouse, telling him to kiss her boot or make a toast to her, and she knows that Jean as her servant has to obey her. Jean is incredibly conflicted because no one likes to be toyed with, and he doesn’t want to lose his job. On the other hand, he later confesses that as a child he had a crush on Julie.
One thing leads to another, and Julie and Jean end up in Jean’s room. Presumably they’re hiding from the servants and Julie’s friends so they’re not seen in each other’s company, but they also sleep together. Then they wind up back in the kitchen, and their talk becomes a tense back-and-forth of “What now?” and “Should we stay or should we go?” Jean wants to go to Lake Como and open up a hotel, with Julie there to charm the guests. He seems to think Julie, as the daughter of a baron, can finance it, but then Julie reveals she has no money of her own. It becomes clear that both Julie and Jean are trapped by their choices and circumstances. It’s to be expected that what Julie does in the end isn’t pretty at all, not to mention depressing.
Contrary to what the critics say, the 2014 version of Miss Julie does not stick too close to the play, and the reasons are legion. The flavor of the play is much more Scandinavian instead of Irish like in the movie–Kathleen was originally named Kristine. Kathleen (Kristine) and Julie were obviously friends, whereas in the movie the dynamic is a mixture of friends and boss-and-employee. In the play, the atmosphere in the kitchen is informal, and Julie’s presence there is natural. She’s much more silly and playful with Jean in the play, while in the movie she just seems snobby and awkward at the outset. The movie also drew out the tension in Julie and Jean’s relationship, but the play is much more subtle. The movie takes us into Jean’s bedroom, and later on we see a disheveled Julie fixing her dress and pulling up her stockings while Jean washes up. In the play, all we see of Julie and Jean’s liaison is Jean asking Julie to come away to his room. They go offstage and that’s the end of it. The tension comes in the form of Kristine sleeping on a chair in the kitchen while Jean and Julie’s seduction is going on. In the movie she just goes to her room, and the idea that she could wake up at any moment becomes less immediate. The ending in the play–which I won’t spoil–is as subtle as Julie and Jean’s tryst, and less so in the movie. Either way, it’s tragic.
Another difference between the 2014 film and the play is that the characters seem more well-rounded. In the play, Julie revealed that her father had married a commoner who hated men, and in short, Julie had been ill-equipped socially while she was growing up. She didn’t know how to relate to men or women or have good relationships with anyone, and she had caught a little of her mother’s man-hating. Meanwhile, Jean had looked at Julie’s garden as a boy and thought it was Eden. He learned languages and how to relate to the upper class in an attempt to gain a little of what he saw as an idyllic existence, but once his tryst with Julie happens, he realizes that there’s no difference between the classes except the size of their bankrolls. It’s like being dashed with cold water. The film barely touches on Jean’s idolizing of Julie; instead, Jean is gripped by a vague desire to travel, and collects brochures for various destinations in Europe. What’s amazing is that the film runs two hours and ten minutes, and you would think there would have been ample time to get to know these characters, but instead it just piles on more tension.
One thing that doesn’t change between the play and the film is Kathleen (Kristine)’s response to Julie and Jean’s actions. She is, understandably, angry and upset at Jean for sleeping with Julie, because she sees him as a traitor. She has also clearly taken her own dash of cold water when she says, “If the upper classes aren’t decent, what do we have left to work for?” Yet Kathleen softens towards Julie and Jean, even after Jean tries to lay guilt on her for being disappointed in Julie. She tells Julie that she’s held to the faith of her childhood, and when Julie asks if there’s grace for those of her class, Kathleen tells her that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. She then goes off to church, but not before she tells Jean that she’ll bring back forgiveness for both of them. Kathleen may be the wronged party, but she’s also the strongest, or maybe the most stubborn. Even after everything that’s happened, she still sees a future for Jean and herself.
Strindberg wrote Miss Julie in 1888. His regular Swedish publisher wouldn’t touch it, and it was finally picked up by another publishing house. The play was slated to open in Copenhagen in 1889, except that it took a lot of flak for its racy content, risking censorship and an outright ban by the police. Its first performance was private in order to avoid being shut down, and even when it was performed in public, audiences invariably squirmed. Miss Julie not only challenged the moral sensibilities of the day, but would have been a cautionary tale against moving outside one’s sphere. The class system was, and to an extent, still is very much alive and well in Britain and Europe, and before the First World War, members of the different classes didn’t mix. For Victorian audiences, the idea of a rich young woman seducing a member of the working class was unthinkable. She would have been slumming. Meanwhile, if a lower-class man married a woman of a different social position, it worked in his favor. It’s confusing and hairy, but it was the way things worked back then.
In all, the film of Miss Julie is much heavier than the play, and sometimes the film seems to drag needlessly. There’s only so much agony a person can take before they feel the need to wring out, or look at something happy. Still, Miss Julie is a great study of the potential pitfalls of the Victorian class system.
Levy, Walter. Modern Drama: Selected Plays from 1879 To the Present. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 1999