With her latest role in this HBO-produced series, the English actress Sarah Lancashire is faced with the doubly daunting task of having to play one American national treasure, Julia Child, and follow in the footsteps of another, Meryl Streep, who played the original celebrity chef in 2009’s Julie & Julia. Despite this pressure, she rises to the challenge exquisitely, not unlike one of Child’s cheese soufflés.
Watching Nora Ephron’s film, you can be struck by how good Streep is in the role. Watching Sky Atlantic’s delightful new bio-series Julia, you can forget that you’re seeing someone act. Lancashire doesn’t so much perform here as disappear. It’s not just that she captures Child’s idiosyncratic way of speaking, or that she’s able to transmit the garrulous cook’s enormous charisma. It’s the fact that she can replicate all of these qualities and simultaneously compel you to look past them, to discover what else, besides eccentricity, defines this woman who’s as insecure as she is self-deprecating, as tender as she is loud, as sexual as she is matronly.
This intimate character study is contained within the story of how Child got her breakthrough on television with the immensely popular show The French Chef. We begin in 1962, a year after the publication of her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which helped democratise fine dining in the US. Now back in Boston with her doting husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce essentially reprising his role as Frasier’s lovably fastidious Niles Crane), Julia is invited to feature on a literary review programme on a local TV channel. The host, who’d rather be interviewing Vladimir Nabokov, introduces her with derision and pronounces the word “cookbook” as if it were a slur. Unfazed by the haughty presenter and cameras, Julia proceeds to give a chaotic live demonstration on how to cook the perfect omelette.
After her appearance, the station receives an unprecedented number of letters requesting more of Julia. One young editor, Alice (Brittany Bradford), sees the potential in commissioning an educational cookery show, but her chauvinistic colleagues refuse to get on board, with one stating that they need someone “more camera-friendly and with a less distinctive sound”. It’s nothing that Julia hasn’t heard before: “One of the advantages of looking like me is that I know not to take no for an answer,” she retorts. She also knows that there’s no better way to a man’s heart than through his stomach, and so proceeds to cook him a meal that will make him eat his words. All it takes in the end to get a pilot is a helping of foie gras.
Without revealing too much about how this test-run pans out, it features a combination of some of the most heartwarming, excruciatingly funny and affecting moments you’ll find in a drama series this year. For a show that spends much of its time examining what constitutes good television, Julia happily seems to contain most of the vital ingredients.
On Sky Atlantic and NOW from April 12 in the UK; on HBO Max now in the US
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