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'Judy': Renée Zellweger Finds an Oscar at the End of the Rainbow

In a triumphant performance, Zellweger sings her heart out as Judy Garland in her last, desperate days

Rating: PG-13

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Run time: 1 hour 58 minutes

Stars: Jessie Buckley, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Renée Zellweger

Director: Rupert Goold

Renée Zellweger, 50, returns to the screen ablaze, singing as if her life depends on it. She's not the most likely actress to be cast as the Hollywood belter Judy Garland. But, as it turns out, she's the perfect choice. Her performance is a standing-ovation-worthy singing, dancing, wisecracking, shrugging, loving, self-loathing, mascara-running marathon marvel that will bring her an Oscar. Full stop.

Zellweger dives deep into the beloved but bedraggled Wizard of Oz icon at the twilight of her career, only six months before the star's final overdose at 47. This compact biopic, directed by Rupert Goold and adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter's visceral play "End of the Rainbow", primarily focuses on a discrete and juicy time period. Judy captures that singular comeback moment when a broke, divorced Garland takes a five-week Christmastime headliner gig at London's Talk of the Town in 1968, an ocean away from her grown daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), and two young children by ex Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, 51).

Among the strong supporting cast members, soft-voiced British heartthrob Sewell (The Man in the High Castle, Victoria) stands out as Luft, who produced her classic A Star is Born. He gives the sense of an entire marriage in a few short scenes opposite Zellweger, painting a picture of a couple on the far side of their screaming matches but not without mutual affection. There's a sense he's hard on Judy — but he's also a father who wants stability for his children, even if taking custody devastates his peripatetic ex-wife.

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Also notable is dimpled Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story) as Mickey Deans, Garland's much younger paramour and fifth husband, who walks the line between charmer and chiseler. A grounded Jessie Buckley (superb in Wild Rose) plays Rosalyn Wilder, the real-life woman behind the scenes at Talk of the Town who begins as the unreliable Garland's minder and becomes a friend.

There are awkward bits — the Hollywood Oz set flashbacks with dewy Darci Shaw as the young Garland become repetitive and impede the flow. A little less would have still established that the child star's unhealthy relationship with food and drugs is rooted in the toxic set lorded over by producer Louis B. Mayer, who bullied and allegedly groped his teenage star.

Despite some narrative wobble, Zellweger shows how a star is born, and reborn, on stage nightly. At Talk of the Town, Garland's battle to find her place in the spotlight has escalated — along with the risk of failure. Some nights, there's the drug rush of success; others, as the audience pelts her with bread, she bathes in public humiliation. Between ovations and catcalls, Judy's art wasn't just the notes but a heart-to-heart connection with her audience. Ultimately, Zellweger's ability to connect with viewers is what makes her performance so sensational, and so devastating.

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