Being Julia

It is startling to realize “Being Julia” is only Annette Bening’s 17th film, and that she’s only been on the scene since 1990. She has the grace and magnetism of a legend, a genuine sophistication and star quality that make her watchable in nearly anything.

This includes “Being Julia,” a film that is only good but in which Bening is fantastic. Based on the Somerset Maugham novel “Theater,” it is a darkly funny tale of those two old stand-bys, love and obsession, specifically as they relate to the theater.

Bening plays Julia Lambert, a spectacular diva who, at this point (London, 1938), is the most beloved stage actress in England. She stars nightly in a stiff melodrama, earning one ovation after another for her portrayal of a lovelorn women, but as she carefully points out, she doesn’t actually FEEL any of those emotions. If she did, she’d go mad.

Her life offstage is not much different. She is always “on,” always ready to greet her public, keen to be talked about in the newspapers and gossiped about on the street. She has an odd sort of marriage with her manager, Michael (Jeremy Irons), who is either oblivious or apathetic to Julia’s affairs and who is both her biggest fan and harshest critic. (“I’m a b****!” she wails in a moment of self-pity. “Nevertheless…” is the start of his reply.)

Her latest lover, Charles (Bruce Greenwood), has just broken up with her, but she’s in luck: A fresh-faced young American lad named Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) is in town, ostensibly hoping to learn about the theater business but apparently quite interested in learning about British actresses’ underthings, too. He is a huge Julia Lambert fan, and she is flattered by the advances of a man young enough to be her son.

Her actual son, Roger (Tom Sturridge), usually off at boarding school, doesn’t know what to make of his mother. “You have a performance for everyone,” he says. “I’m not sure you exist.”

He has a point. While it would be a blast to associate with a Julia Lambert, to be related to one would be awful. She is not far off from Bette Davis’ character in “All About Eve,” and “Being Julia” even borrows a few pages from that film in its last act, where Julia’s status as Diva No. 1 is threatened by a mostly untalented engenue named Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch). Her jealousy of the girl is exacerbated by the fact that Avice is sleeping with Tom Fennel, too. What’s a dyed-in-the-wool drama queen to do? Julia’s solution is more entertaining than believable, a rather disappointing end to an otherwise serviceable movie, but Bening demonstrates such wicked glee in doing it that it’s hard to fault her.

Adapted by Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”) and directed by Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo (“Sunshine”), the movie has sharp, high-class comedy and drama to spare but isn’t sure what to do with anyone except Julia. When she is not in it, the film becomes noticeably less engaging. Her expressive eyes, her beautiful face, her enthusiasm and passion – it’s impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s on the screen, not just because she’s lovely but because she makes being Julia seem so darned fun.

B- (1 hr., 45 min.; R, a bit of nudity, brief strong sexuality, a few mild profanities.)