The Great Lillian Hall review – Jessica Lange captivates in Broadway-set drama

Estimated read time 5 min read

There’s an almighty performance super-powering HBO’s mysteriously handled TV movie The Great Lillian Hall, an elegant Broadway-set drama blessed with an all-consuming Jessica Lange. It’s her first film lead since 2006 (even before then it was in 1998) and it’s one that almost wasn’t hers to have. It had originally been announced in 2021 as Places, Please, with Meryl Streep headlining, an actor who has swallowed up the few meaty roles for older women in Hollywood, a sign not of her rapaciousness, of course, but of an industry’s dire lack. More roles have appeared at a glacial pace but mostly in an episodic format, a world that’s allowed Lange a route back to the limelight.

Her work with Ryan Murphy has mostly been more suited for memes than awards (although her time in the American Horror Story trenches was rewarded with the role of Joan Crawford in the first season of Feud) but it’s still been fruitful, and a delicious, consistent reminder of just what a fantastic, and fun, actor Lange is. The past few years have also seen her return to the stage, most recently in the decade-spanning family drama Mother Play, which scored her a Tony nomination after she won in 2016. Her role here might, and should, vault her into the Emmys race, the film given a last-minute release on the last day of eligibility after a surprise announcement just weeks ago.

As late as it all might seem for a nomination, and Lange surely did deserve a better runway, she’s so breath-catchingly great that it shouldn’t matter, a thrilling performance of considerable weight that it could almost also see her winning too. As she also performs on stage in her real life as a Tony-winning actor playing a woman with dementia, here she plays a Tony-winning actor preparing to perform on stage who discovers she has dementia. Lillian Hall is seen as one of Broadway’s greats, a starring role in a new staging of The Cherry Orchard a fitting, and believably safe, choice for someone of her stature.

But something’s amiss. With just weeks to go until previews begin, she’s forgetting lines, growing unsteady on her feet and seeing visions of her late husband. Her assistant and longtime friend Edith (Tony nominee Kathy Bates, excellent enough here to make up for her other film of the week), her long-suffering daughter (Tony nominee Lily Rabe) and her new director David (Tony nominee Jesse Williams) are concerned, although Lillian is adamant that things are fine and that the show will go on, no matter what it takes.

It’s a small, focused character study centered around a knockout lead performance, the kind of film that might have been given a limited theatrical release two decades prior by Sony Pictures Classics with an Oscar in mind. It tracks that now this would be for the small screen but, mercy be, it’s thankfully not as a bloated miniseries at a time when that has become the eye-rolling go-to. It feels like a throwback in mostly the very best ways – scenes of Lange and Bates, two women in their 70s, softly sniping at each other in a luxe Manhattan apartment are a real rare joy to see – and with theatre pros in front of and behind the camera (director is Tony-winning actor-writer-director Michael Cristofer), it’s a film that takes seriously, and with detail, the act of stage performance and the perils that come along with.

Some of screenwriter Elisabeth Seldes Annacone’s strokes can be a little too broad (a villainous producer barks on-the-nose lines like, “This isn’t show art, this is showbusiness!”), some directorial choices a little unnecessary (indulgent black-and-white interviews are interspersed throughout) and after a pacey, no-notes first act, there’s a noticeable sag in act two but all wobbles are corrected by Lange, who takes full control of a miraculous showcase. As clearly wondrous as Streep may be as an actor, there’s a fascinating, sometimes faintly terrifying, unpredictability to Lange that works so beautifully for someone in this situation, unsure of themselves and the horrors that might lie within. It’s one of her most persuasive and punchy performances, avoiding every cliche of the over-emphasised theatricality of playing a performer and the oft-seen movie-of-the-week confusion of having dementia. Scenes of her unmoored are shattering, yet the film doesn’t wallow in the miserable inevitability of it all. There’s humour and even a frisson of romance with her flirty pot-smoking neighbour, played by Pierce Brosnan, the film giving us the fullness of a life that for an older woman we just don’t often get to see in this way.

It’s perhaps a little slight, and at times a little rustily directed, to linger for some, but Lange’s performance undoubtedly will, the role of a star delivering her swansong delivered by an actor who’s clearly far from it.

  • The Great Lillian Hall premieres at 8pm on 31 May on HBO and will be available to stream on Max with a UK date to be announced


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