A protégé of the famous (deceased) acting coach Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon), by 1938, Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) is London's leading lady, but she is living in a platonic limbo with her husband, impresario Michael (Jeremy Irons). When young American Tom (Shaun Evans) arrives and seeks work at the theatre, flattering her with his adulation and infatuation - Julia responds, expecting the romance to snap her out of her midlife crisis. But Tom soon finds a pretty young blonde actress Avice (Lucy Punch) more suitable to his age, even using his connections with Julia and Michael to find Avice a role in their next play. When Julia discovers that Michael and Avice are also having an affair, she shows just what a great actress she really is, on an opening night none of them will forget.

Bening puts her usual best foot forward.

Annette Bening was one of the Best Actress nominees at the recent 2005 Academy Awards for her role in Being Julia, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novella Theatre, directed by veteran Hungarian director Istvan Szabo (Mephisto, Sunshine). Set in 1938 London, Bening plays actress Julia Lambert, a woman who is the toast of the theatre set yet at personal crossroads. With a younger actresses nipping at her heels, Julia can see the end of her career looming. Insecurity has set in, so what else to do but have an affair with a younger man! That is, in spite of being married to the hottest producer in London, the dashing Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons).

Some of the best scenes in Being Julia are when Irons and Bening go at it hammer and tong, acting up a storm. It is lots of fun to watch, and Bening puts her usual best foot forward, running the full gamut of emotional states being Julia, a woman who finds her true self only when on stage (think of Bette Davis's Margo Channing in All About Eve or Billy Crudup's Ned Kynaston in Stage Beauty). The rest of the time she swings between anxiety and neuroses. Julia Lambert would be an ambitious character for any actress to play, she is in almost every scene - but Bening handled the challenge impeccably.

Being Julia
is nowhere near as compelling or inspiring as its aforementioned distant cousins, All About Eve (1950) and Cabaret (1972), two brilliant theatre films made by two far more inspiring directors than Szabo it must be said – to which it owes much, especially when it comes to looking at love affairs and power machinations behind the red velvet curtains. But it does have a killer ending very worth waiting for. Bening tries hard to give the film a more serious, feminist edge, a glimpse into the frail female psyche of a woman who's had a fortune (looks, success, status) and fearful of losing it. And though Shaun Evans as Julia's younger lover Tom Fennel is pretty forgettable in the role, the rest of the cast put in some excellent work, which includes Tom Sturridge (Vanity Fair) as Julia's son Roger (he's a scene stealer), Michael Gambon (Sleepy Hollow, Open Range) and Canadian Bruce Greenwood (I, Robot, The Sweet Hereafter).

But Being Julia often winds up being reduced to a camp, Noel Coward-esque romp. Which is fine if you're after a little light entertainment. But if you prefer your theatre movies a little meatier like last year's Stage Beauty, prepare to be disappointed.