TV REVIEW: HBO Max’s Julia

By Tom Moore

It’s actually remarkable that there haven’t been many attempts to bring the story and personality of Julia Child to life outside of Meryl Streep’s performance in “Julie & Julia”, a couple PBS specials, and Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s 2021 documentary given her infectious spirit and pivotal impact. Child’s presence on television has made people absolutely fall in love with food and cooking and she became a pivotal figure for women not just through her sheer appearance on screen, but also in the way she connected with women in being unapologetically herself.  That what’s makes HBO Max’s dramedy biopic
“Julia” so refreshing and instantly charming with how it captures and depicts the early rise of Child.

“Julia” isn’t like other biopics where it tries to deliver this sweeping view of Child’s life and rather gets right to the good part as Julia (Sarah Lancashire) has already found success in crafting her renowned French cuisine cookbooks but seeks to be something more. Right from her first few lines, Lancashire effortlessly exudes that charismatic spark and wit that people adore about Child. You can’t help but hang off every word she says, and she offers that same refreshing and calming presence that Child brought. When she’s performing as Julia in the early days of her iconic cooking show, “The French Chef”, she showcases that same level of openness and delightfully crass humor that made her so engaging and unique and it’s great how that doesn’t change when she’s off set.

That same level of vulnerability and comedic wit exists in her daily life with her husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce) and works well in establishing how Julia was always truly herself. With all her interactions, Julia remains charming and throws in some funny remarks and anecdotes that make you smile. The series’ aesthetics also play into her overall tone of hope and determination for success with the atmosphere not only creating a strong visual depiction of the times but aligning well with Julia’s personality that’s bolstered by the great score from Jeff Danna and Shirley Song.  However, the series never depicts Julia’s rise as solely rosy as it showcases the obstacles Julia and other women around her face in trying to bring their vision to life.

The aspect of Julia facing rebuke and hesitation for her wanting to create “The French Chef” can be interesting and kind of funny with how she uses food to mesmerize snarky male producers, but it doesn’t take many interesting routes. It’s just a pretty standard showing of a savvy woman facing off against misogynistic producers, especially knowing how successful she becomes, and frankly, the issues she faces at home with Paul are much more compelling. The way that the series depicts Julia and Paul’s complicated relationship is fascinating as Julia doesn’t always find the sense of clear support she looks for in Paul. As Julia becomes a lauded force, you can feel this struggle within Paul to keep her in his grasp, which adds some tension to their relationship. However, it never comes off malicious and it’s what makes Julia and Paul’s relationship so complex and interesting.

These two certainly have a love for one another that they fight to keep alive, but they are shown to struggle as dynamics change within their lives. Although Paul is generally by Julia’s side, he’s still trapped in his own head and struggles to see Julia as something more than his wife. His refusal to support the idea of her show until Julia essentially makes him believe that it is his idea and his overexertion of physical romance, show his insecurities about how things are changing. He’s certainly not comfortable with Julia being the star, it does show some possible growth for him as the series goes on that could be very fulfilling. It could also be interesting to see Julia change in this relationship in becoming for more defiant and confident in her communication with Paul.

There’s also some potential for female supporting characters, like an unheard black female producer named Alice (Brittany Bradford) and Julia’s friend Avis (Bebe Neuwirth), to grow along with Julia. Because of Julia’s determination and the sense of support she gives to those around her, you can feel this glimmer of inspiration she gives to those around her. Alice and Avis’ arcs show a lot of potential to showcase the impact Julia had on not just people that watched her show, but those right beside her and create a strong story of women empowering one another. Who knows, maybe she can even change the heart of hesitant lead producer Russ (Fran Kranz)?

HBO Max is cooking up something pretty special with “Julia” as it puts the endlessly charming personality of Julia Childs on full display through Lancashire’s swiftly enticing performance and creates an intriguing personal narrative with some strong potential to hook viewers.

4-stars

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