Actually, the new movie's origins predate the Bette Davis-Anne Baxter classic. Set in London in 1938, Julia derives from a minor W. Somerset Maugham novella called Theatre, largely forgotten today but a prime example of that writer's gifts for keen satire and ironic detachment. Like Margo, the flaming redhead Julia Lambert, played here by a ravishing, period-perfect Annette Bening, is a renowned stage star now on the far side of 40 -- vain as a diva, worried about the ravages of time and ever more desperate to keep fame and fortune.
Maugham's signature wit and his tragic colorations are well-served here by Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, who had some harsh things to say about theatrical ambition in 1981's Mephisto, and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, the fluent South African-born playwright who gave us another backstage gem, The Dresser. Julia's marriage to a suave impresario (Jeremy Irons) has long been devoid of sex, and her secret friendship with a man-about-town (Bruce Greenwood) is platonic, so when Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), a young American social climber, begins to flirt, the aging actress reverts to a giddy schoolgirl. We sense from the start that penniless Tom is a cad, but Julia leaps eagerly into their doomed affair.
But there's more drol-lery than gloom in this tale of a drama queen scorned. Like Norma Desmond, holed up in her mausoleum on Sunset Boulevard, Julia Lambert uses the only thing available to her -- acting skill -- to get revenge. The elaborate ploy involves a new play, the witless blond ingenue (Lucy Punch) who has seduced both her young lover and her husband, and constant acting cues from her long-dead mentor, Jimmy (Michael Gambon), which now flit through Julia's vivid imagination like old dreams recaptured. The comedy of manners and the farce of her life, culminate -- where else? -- onstage, where the actress who can never stop acting manages to give the most original performance of her career, a venomous opening-night improvisation that savages her young rival, gives the stunned playwright apoplexy and brings down the house. This tour de force is far more dramatic in the Szabo-Harwood retelling than in Maugham's book, but that's probably as it should be. In the aftermath of Julia's triumph, she discovers what sorrow and loneliness her vengeance has wrought: her total disillusionment with love.
Bening, a seductive thief in The Grifters and a French libertine in Valmont, makes the most of this chance to stretch her muscles. Slowly but surely, the California girl within comes to convince us, by word and deed, that she's an authentic English icon beset by English whims and English fears. Watch her preen, and watch her scheme. Listen as she boasts: "Real actresses don't make films. " As Margo Channing could tell you, all the world's still a stage.