In 'Julia,' all the world's a stage

Annette Bening acts out a midlife crisis in 'Being Julia.'

Actors face a hurdle as they get older, with only a few managing to sustain careers as they head into middle age and beyond. For actresses it's even harder - which makes the enduring success of celebrities such as Meryl Streep all the more impressive.

And of course Annette Bening, who's now negotiating the transition from fresh, youngish star to mature, seasoned star. Her new movie, "Being Julia," is a perfect vehicle for this artistic journey, since it lets her play a dazzling actress who's coping with the same challenge, both on and off the stage.

Based on "Theatre," a touching and funny W. Somerset Maugham novel, "Being Julia" centers on a star of the London stage in the late 1930s. She's been married to her manager for years but they've long been more affectionate than passionate toward each other.

Starting to fear the onset of middle age in both public and private life, Julia lets herself flirt with a much younger fan, then falls in love with him. Also in the picture is a young actress who could become a professional rival, and perhaps a romantic one as well.

Part of the movie's fascination is watching Ms. Bening play a role that tantalizingly mirrors her own position in today's movie world - and she does it with wit, sparkle, and all-out energy.

The rest of the cast is just as impressive, from Jeremy Irons as Julia's spouse to Lucy Punch as her rival and Michael Gambon as the late mentor who made her a star. Although he's deceased, he makes ghostly visits to tell our heroine how well she's doing.

That ghost may sound like a storytelling gimmick, but the fact that he shows up on all kinds of occasions is a good indicator of the movie's main theme - that all of us are "acting" all the time, and for a professional as aware of this as Julia, handling the overlaps between art and life can be a tricky business. Directed by István Szabó from Ronald Harwood's screenplay, "Being Julia" is a smart treat.

Rated R; contains sexuality.

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