“I AM at your service,” says Colin Farrell’s John to Jessica Chastain’s Miss Julie in Liv Ullman’s version of Strindberg’s controversial classic.
Combining abundant measures of sexual energy and recalcitrant malcontent, this might well be the part that Farrell was born to play. Magnetic, menacing yet equally malleable, Farrell brings full maturity to his portrayal of Strindberg’s low-born but high-brow household servant.
Farrell and Chastain form a forceful screen fusion in Ullman’s Miss Julie, playing the ill-starred lovers with the right amount of social repression, sudden explosion and tragic condition. The ever-impressive Samantha Morton plays Kathleen the cook, dominant moral force in the kitchen where most of the action unfolds. Her discomfort at the sexuality between John and Julie is ambiguous. Perhaps she’s simply put out that her own dalliance with John is threatened; perhaps she’s aware that erotic congress between upstairs and downstairs might cause the whole edifice of class distinction to crumble.
It was this possibility that certainly most concerned Strindberg. The idea that strict class lines were blurring was a profound moral topic in the late 19th-century. John (Jean in the original) is one of the great dramatic anti-heroes, torn between knowing his place and kicking over the traces. A sense of barely tamed wild temper means the role is often played, in English versions, by a Celtic actor (eg. Donal McCann, Stephen Rea, Peter Mullan). But none are more suitable than Farrell. The rakish Dublin wideboy meets the sensitive troubled soul, intertwined with acute sexual magnetism. No wonder the women are fighting over him.
Miss Julie is in cinemas from Friday, 28 August.