Nora Ephron's film sort of sneaks up on you and plants a big, warm kiss on your cheek when you're unawares. It's a deceptive creature. On the face of it, I have to admit that the ingredients simply aren't the kind of fare I'd normally go for. It has a whiff of chick-flick rom-com and it's only the presence of Meryl Streep that urged me to give this a spin. I also had vague memories of the world famous chef that she plays and, although I couldn't confirm it, I'm sure some of Julia Child's shows played here in the UK back in the early to late 1970s. I do recall that tall woman with the piping voice warmly offering up her mastery of French cuisine.
Here we have two stories merged into one. We get the biographical backstory of how Julia Child, with her husband Paul, arrive in post-war Paris and of how she attempts to fill her time as the wife to a man who works in the diplomatic service. First she tries making hats, then she tries learning bridge and then finally she fixates on learning to cook. She enrols in the Le Cordon Bleu school but also finds that she can't track down a French cook book in English, written for an American readership. She becomes an expert chef and, inspired, decides she's going to write the cook book she's been longing to find. So begins an odyssey spanning decades until she finally publishes Mastering The Art Of French Cooking in 1961.
As this story unfolds it is woven into a parallel narrative about Julie Powell. Julie spends her days dealing with traumatic phone calls about the aftermath of 9/11 in a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation call centre near Ground Zero. She and her husband Eric move into an apartment in Queens, New York and to give her life some semblance of purpose she decides to cook her way through all 524 recipes in Julia Child's classic cookbook during a period of one year. Furthermore, she decides, after her husband encourages her, to blog about the experience. The blog attracts a following and eventually opens up a new career for Julie.
What makes this simplistic set of stories work is the way that Ephron effortlessly shifts between the two, capturing beautifully the romance between Julia and Paul in a picturesque Paris of the late 1940s and 1950s, and the modernist love story between Julie and Eric. One is about a woman coming to terms with her selfhood after the horror of the Second World War and the other is about a woman finding meaning in her life after the city she lives in is devastated by a terrorist attack. These two incongruous stories merge together in a film that is warm and funny and, yes, romantic without straying into sentimental slushiness.
The love between Julia and Paul is very movingly transposed to the screen by Streep and an equally brilliant Stanley Tucci. Streep and Tucci also physically get across how much Julia and Paul enjoyed their sex life and whilst much of Julia's struggles to learn to cook and write her bestselling cookbook create the humour of the film there are two scenes in particular that are particularly moving in describing their childless marriage as a troubling, tragic scar on Julia's psyche. Streep suggests it very briefly in a sequence where Julia and Paul are walking down a Parisian street and pass a woman with a baby in a pram and where Street uses physical and facial movements to convey her regret and then later more overtly when her sister Dorothy (Glee's fabulous Jane Lynch in a glorious cameo) announces her pregnancy and Julia breaks down at the news.
Streep is amazing in this film. She gets Julia's physicality spot on with capturing that slight awkwardness inherent in a very tall woman and her vocal intonations too with that piping, lilting staccato inflection. She also conveys Julia's zest for life perfectly and the performance sparkles and flashes off the screen whilst opening up the woman's generous heart and spirit. It's a triumph of character acting.
I have to praise Stanley Tucci too. It's a clever man who can hold his own next to Streep and still emerge with a beautifully nuanced performance as the thoroughly supportive Paul. He's dapper and sophisticated and is subtly gorgeous. A charming creation and wonderfully endearing for most of the film but Tucci also captures the anxiety and frustration when McCarthy calls Paul to a UnAmerican Activities hearing and he's grilled about his work as a diplomat in China and Ceylon and thus bringing their idyll in Paris to a close.
Amy Adams is sweet without being too saccharine as Julie and her relationship is slightly more tempestuous with husband Eric, an appealing performance from Chris Messina, as he begins to resent her every waking hour tied to her blog and readers instead of him. Inevitably there are culinary disasters along the way that provide many amusing moments and triumphs that are wholly uplifting too. Adams and Messina work perfectly together and similarly to Julia and Paul the film mirrors Julie and Eric's passion for cooking and eating. They are ably supported by Mary Jane Rajskub (24's Chloe O'Brien) as Julie's friend Sarah.
Post war Paris and the Child's apartment are recreated in beautiful detail and provide a lush, romantic contrast to the cramped quarters that Julie and Eric live in on the edge of New York, a locale that's unglamourous and refreshingly devoid of the usual emblems of the city that pop up in films made on location there. The food that is cooked and consumed throughout the film will have your mouth watering and is sumptuously photographed. It's quite simply a delightfully sensual film, passionate about life, loving, writing, cooking and eating that manages to avoid what could so easily become sentimentality and cliche. Bon appetit!
The 1080p picture quality is very fine, vibrantly bursting with detail and colour. A lovely transfer that emphasises the luxuriousness of the Child's idyllic life in post-war Paris and captures the tougher, gritter qualities of modern New York. The Paris set sequences really do benefit from the glossiness of the picture but it also copes admirably with the darker, night time scenes in the New York apartment with deep, inky contrast. The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless 5.1 track matches this with a satisfying ambient soundscape, clear and crisp dialogue and a light score.
Audio Commentary: Not the best effort from writer/director Nora Ephron as her comments tend to be infrequent and often just simply reiterate what we're seeing on the screen. A real shame because she's an accomplished director and writer and I would have liked more anecdotes than we actually get here.
Secret Ingredients: Creating Julie & Julia (28 min) This is a very nice 'behind the scenes' featurette and in its short running time manages to cover lots of background on the writing, casting, directing and designing of the film. It even looks at how the food was prepared and cooked on the set. Footage of the Paris shoot, including the transformation of a street for the film, interviews with the cast and with Ephron, insights into the photography and performances are all major plusses here.
Family and Friends Remember Julia Child (48 min) Definitely the best thing in the special features package here. A lengthy biography of Julia Child as seen from the viewpoints of her many friends, relatives and colleagues. It also firmly emphasises what an impact Child made on culinary culture in America and looks at her stint on television. It thoroughly exposes the real Julia Child to show what a warm, giving, funny and lovely woman she was. As the story moves towards the death of her husband Paul and her own decline, the documentary becomes a very moving testament to her achievement. It will make you cry.
Julia's Kitchen(23 min) Fascinating and absorbing examination of how Julia Child donated her entire kitchen to the Smithsonian Institute. It examines how the team catalogued and then took apart the thousand piece kitchen and painstakingly transfered it to the museum.
Cooking Lessons(23 min) A couple of excerpts from one of Child's many TV series, poaching eggs and making Hollandaise sauce with Jacques Pépin. Alas, it then turns to other chefs demonstrating their own recipes.I would have preferred more extracts of Julia's shows, personally.
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Julie & Julia (Sony Blu Ray - SBR55320 - Region B - Cert 12 - Released March 8th, 2010)