After meeting Adolf Hitler in 1938, Neville Chamberlain announced, “Peace in our time”—a phrase that’s become a code word for delusion. Someone quotes it in Being Julia, Hungarian director István Szabó’s elegant if somewhat stuffy adaptation (set in London that same year) of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Theatre. Placing this intimate, at times farcical drama—about an aging West End diva’s fling with a young admirer—against the broader stage of history, Szabó suggests that, within and without, all is illusion.

Annette Bening stars as Julia Lambert, a consummate professional at the summit of her career, but glimpsing her decline on the horizon. Jeremy Irons is her irksomely vain husband-manager; Michael Gambon fairly steals the show as the earthy ghost of her deceased mentor; and newcomer Shaun Evans plays the ardent, impoverished American whom she first pities, and then pines for.

Bening’s comic gifts make the most of Ronald Harwood’s witty screenplay, though she falls flat in her character’s rare moments of sincerity. She’s mastered the high melodrama of 1930s stage acting, a style that bleeds uncannily into Julia’s private life, revealing a personality molded largely by her stage roles.

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