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08/09/2009

Julie & Julia [Film Review]

Julie & Julia

3/5

Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie & Julia

One of my earliest memories is of an afternoon in our house outside Boston, sitting on the sofa waiting for Sesame Street to start. In 1987, as everyone knows, Sesame Street was the undisputed summit of human culture. It stood as the pinnacle of artistic endeavour, a captivating glimpse of the sublime. Animals and people whirling in bright and musical synchrony: monsters in garbage cans, vampires, talking frogs and giant yellow birds. But it wasn’t four o’clock yet, and the TV was showing something almost as strange.

A woman, cooking – but like no woman I'd ever seen before. Even in her kitchen, with its raised counters and platformed tabletops, she was a titan, a swooping quarterback, hair billowing in prim brown curls and broad shoulders swaying like grass. Most of all I remember her voice, which was like nothing I've heard before or since. It piped in attic octaves before plummeting to basso profundo: it carried a feminine, Ivy League confidence and a weirdly engaging propensity to emphasise individual wurrds in every sentence. It was transfixing, hypnotic, and though I was three years old I still hear with digital clarity her shrill cry as she signed off: 'This is Julia Child saying, 'Bon appetit'!'

So when, the other evening, I sat in Sony's cinema to watch a screening of Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia, and saw Meryl Streep's uncanny evocation of Child, it was an aural madeleine to the sunlit American days of my early childhood (spent, as it happens, a few miles from Child's home in Cambridge). Streep’s performance is indeed extraordinary – a distillation of the chef’s essence, of mannerism, posture and gesture, and of voice above all.

Child's life alone is enough for a film: her husband was a spy and she spent her married life traipsing from one diplomatic posting to another. She came to food late, then found enormous celebrity as a writer and TV cook. But Julie & Julia is no straightforward biopic. The ‘Julie’ part is Julie Powell’s, a woman who, while working for the Manhattan Development Corporation processing compensation claims after 9/11, blogged her way through all 500 or so recipes in Child's co-authored opus, Mastering the Art of French Cookery.

People have sneered at the idea of cooking every recipe in a book, but that’s because Mastering the Art is nothing like modern cookbooks. Jamie Oliver’s editions are numbered so that shelves seem incomplete without the lot, while TV chefs publish volume after glossy volume on desserts or pub grub or Sunday lunch or healthy eating. Always recipes: people who know technique don't need to buy cookbooks. Better food may be on the tables, but better cooks aren’t in the kitchen. Child stated in her fizzing introduction that, through learning essential method, readers should ‘gradually be able to divorce [themselves] from a dependence on recipes'. Whatever else, Powell, who began her blog unable to poach an egg, will have ended it a bloody good cook.

The film isn’t without faults. Ephron mainlines sentimentality, and the movie often sticks in its own goo. Powell’s husband Eric (a vacantly doe-eyed performance by Chris Messina) is skin-crawlingly idealised. And the transitions between Powell’s story and Child’s – melding the camera between the couples’ beds, or train stations, or kitchens – are laboured and indulgent. But this is a rich, buttery picture, two drawn-out hours of unadulterated froggy gastroporn, with excellent performances from Streep and Stanley Tucci as Paul Child.

Julia Child's genius was not that she changed the way Americans eat: only immigrations and corporations have achieved that. But she sanitised French food, and made it accessibly, comfortingly familiar. Not all Americans cooked her food, but they all knew who she was. And even a young child could quietly watch her cooking and recognise something true and important in the experience. I owe a lot to that early Childlike epiphany, and I know I’m not alone.

Julie & Julia opens nationwide on 11 September

9 comments:

  1. Being a red-blooded, heterosexual alpha male, I have no interest in dippy Nora Ephron rom-coms. Having said that, at least Julia Child is an interesting enough character to carry a film. Let's hope they never try something similar with Gordon Ramsay.

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  2. It is funny to think that Julia Child wasn't that known in France, despite the fact that she wrote a book about the Art of Mastering French Cuisine. I'm proud to say, as a French person, that she managed to bring a little piece of this fine French cuisine into the heart of american kitchen.
    Behind the movie and the two stories is the real achievement of a passion. A passion for life, a passion for food and how the two characters manage to make their dreams come true, be a blog or a cookbook.

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  3. Fab review Ollie. I wasn't particularly fussed about seeing the film but I think I will after reading this. Can't see anyone making a film about our Delia though can you?! It would be funny to see the "let's be avin ya" moment re-enacted though.

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  4. p.s picked up vol 1 of mastering the art of french cuisine froma jumble stall on sunday - 50p! bargain!

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  5. Great review! I wasn't sure if I'd be interested in the film but I do want to see it now!

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  6. Chris - Surely there's a great Gordon film somewhere? Depends how his story ends, I guess.

    Mathilde - A very fair assessment.

    Helen - That was Delia's finest hour! Top find at the jumble stall.

    Su-Lin - Thanks a lot. Would make a nice DVD night.

    Thomas - I wish.

    Kavey - Thanks a lot. Appreciate you saying so.

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  7. Beautifully written! You use words so beautifully and economically. I can't wait to see this film... I love food, blogging and I would like to think I can cook.

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