Being Julia: Treacle Tart with Custard Sauce

Year Released: 2004
Directed by: Istvan Szabo
Starring: Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons
(R, 105 min.)

"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." Henry David Thoreau

WARNING: The last two paragraphs give away some details that you may wish to discover for yourself. Save them to savor after viewing.

Being Julia is about awakening to the difference between truth and illusion. In the title role a radiant Annette Bening begins as a bored actress serving the same scripted clichés to audience and loved ones alike but emerges as the gifted producer of her own play, on stage and off. 

It is Sunset Boulevard with a younger, sunnier disposition, All About Eve, with Bening’s joie de vivre juggernaut replacing Bette Davis’s ironic deadpan. We have the same May-September alliances, the same fawning fans with their daggers concealed, but with a lightness that is neither brittle nor hard.

The plot appears so light and whimsical, in fact, the actors obviously having such fun, that Being Julia is likely to be dismissed as feel good pap in the same way some early critics dismissed Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Some have even lamented that the not inconsiderable talents of Bening have been wasted on an unworthy piece. Balderdash!

And I say too much has been said about the delightful comeuppance Julia dishes out to some thoroughly distasteful upstarts. As much fun as it is to watch cringing opportunists hoist with their own petards, don’t be fooled into thinking that is what is really going on here.

The film is adapted from a Somerset Maugham short story, and not surprisingly it is the relationships rather than the plot that intrigue. Although Tom, Julia’s (didn’t get my heart pumping) boyish lover played by Shaun Evans gets more screen time, Bruce Greenwood’s Lord Charles is the more meaningful soul mate. It is he who cautions a love-struck Julia that a play about an older woman and her young lover would “have to be a farce.” 

Jeremy Irons plays Julia’s unflustered husband Michael. He listens patiently when she complains that the stage does not allow her to indulge in her love for those English decadences like clotted cream and treacle tart. Michael carefully steers her away from her desired beer to the lighter white wine. He is content to weather prima donna outbursts, neurotic misgivings, even rumors of infidelity, but not, certainly not, bad acting. That is when he sends her away to the Jersey Islands to visit Mother. 

At first Michael seems hopelessly cuckolded when he engineers an invitation for the lusty Tom to their summer estate. Only in retrospect, will you understand the genius in this act of self-flagellation.

Julia’s dresser Evie, played by Juliet Stevenson, knows Julia warts and all. In a great comic moment she mouths in silence the anticipated platitudes that Julia steals from her scripts and doles out to friends and family. Evie waits patiently in the hallway while Julia “dallies” with Tom, knowing all too well he is really there for his” allowance” rather than the pleasure of Julia’s company. Instead of a rebuke, she merely says, “You certainly look happier now,” with a sly smile. Her begrudging “I missed you,” welcomes Julia back home from the Jersey Islands with rare unconditional love and loyalty.

Long dead acting mentor Jimmy Langdon still merits a perennial place setting at Julia’s dinner table, and he appears to her on screen in life-like imagery to direct the dramas she has on stage and off. As Julia masterminds the tangled web to trap those who deceived her, he smiles approval at her execution of what are obviously his inspired plots. “Remember, it is the stage that is real. Nothing else,” he reminds.

Stop here until after viewing…

But it is to her son Roger that Julia nods as she pulls off the coup de grace of comeuppance on stage, for he has more than anyone else engineered her awakening. First, by seeming to confess his first disappointing tryst, while at the same time artlessly disclosing Tom’s similar activities. Then, he indignantly reminds her that most of her motherly advice has consisted of warmed over lines from her stage plays. And finally, Roger courageously lets it slip that “Daddy” is carrying on with the young ingénue in their latest stage production. It is her son Roger’s disappointment with her, rather than the condoning acceptance or the opportunistic fawning of others, that moves Julia to a new stage with all the levels of meaning that word implies.

After her triumph in the theatre, Julia, the social butterfly who has lived solely on the nectar of praise, forgoes the cast party to sit alone in a her favorite restaurant and drink a single, large and calorie laden beer. But she doesn’t invite the ghost of her long dead mentor to share the table. “You were wrong,” she chides. For although she has dramatized her awakening on the stage, Julia now knows where reality lies, and it is in life, not the theatre.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

I will be cryptic and say that if you understand the meaning of the beer and treacle tart you get it. Beer, that hearty drink of the hard working, the unpretentious, those not concerned with figures or fat, pretensions or premieres. More a drink for self assured men, savored after a hard day of physical toil. Why has Julia yearned for its fullness and why does she now feel free to drink it?

Maybe the real Julia is the daughter of the veterinarian from the Jersey Islands, not the darling of the London stage. In retrospect, it seems that her self-understanding begins in earnest when she returns from Jersey. And with this triumph on stage, where she becomes the producer of drama and life at once, Julia can put away insecurities about growing old or less attractive. It is her creative competence that has and will continue to define her.

But what of the treacle tart? Well it is probably even more decadent than mere beer. I mean treacle is the British word for molasses, so we are not just risking waistline here, but the pearly whites as well. You have to be one confident actress to indulge here. The version that follows is served with custard sauce or thick cream. (There goes the cholesterol!) 

By the way, I wouldn’t suggest pairing both your beer and treacle tart with Being Julia. It’s not that I’m against decadence squared, food-wise that is, but these two really don’t match up. Perhaps beer before the screening and the tart afterward, washed down with steaming coffee, hot tea, or a nice sherry as enjoyed by the little London ladies at the afternoon matinees.

Choose your favorite American brew or try a daring selection from the following: In 1930’s London you might enjoy Bass Ale or Boddingtons Pub Ale (around since 1778). Today in America you can find Fuller’s ESB (Extra Special Bitter), Young’s Oatmeal Stout, or since Englishmen loved their beer if not their politics, Ireland’s wonderful Guinness Stout. (Expertise via Brian from the Dog and Duck Pub in Austin, Texas)

Here’s how to put together the…

Treacle Tart with Custard Sauce

Short Pastry

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable fat or lard
  • 5 tablespoons ice water 
  • Butter as needed 

Resift flour and salt into a bowl. Using knives or a pastry blender, cut in butter and fat until it looks like coarse meal. Add ice water by the tablespoon until pastry just holds together. Roll out 1/8 inch thick. 

Tart

  • 1 portion Short Pastry (See above)
  • 2 cups bread crumbs or crushed cereal flakes
  • 1/2 cup molasses mixed with 1/2 cup light corn syrup

Roll out pastry on a lightly floured board to about 11 inches in diameter. Press gently into 9-inch pie plate. Trim excess and use fork tines to shape edges. Spread crumbs or flakes evenly over crust. Then pour molasses syrup all over flakes. Use pastry trimmings to form narrow strips. Use these to make a latticework pattern over tart. Make in a preheated oven at 425 for 20 to 25 minutes. Serve with custard sauce or thick cream. 

Custard Sauce 

  • 3 egg yolks 
  • 1/3 cup sugar 
  • Pinch of salt 
  • 1/2 cups light cream
  • 1 teaspoon rose water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract (or 1 teaspoon of rum, brandy, sherry, 
  • or dry white wine) 

Beat the yolk of egg, sugar, and salt until very light in color. Scald the cream and pour into the eggs, stirring briskly. Pour into the top of a double boiler placed over 1-inch barely simmering water. Cook, stirring until mixture coats the spoon, about 7 to 8 minutes. Cool, stirring occasionally; flavor with rose water and vanilla extract and chill.

Recipe Source: Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover's Cookbook