Annette Bening is back, and if there’s any justice in Hollywood (there’s not) then she’ll be greeted with an Oscar for her turn as an aging stage star in Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia. Although there’s been good work by other actresses this year–Virginia Madsen in Sideways, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, Julie Delpy in Before Sunset, Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace, Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kirsten Dunst in Spotless Mind and Spider-Man 2–Bening’s performance is unrivaled in the sheer pleasure we get from watching her inhabit a meaty, well-written role she clearly has some identification with.

It’s easy to forget that Bening, now in her mid-40s, was once hot-hot-hot property in Hollywood, with roles in Valmont, The Grifters and Bugsy all seeming to establish her as the second coming of a 1940s femme fatale in the cut of Veronica Lake or Lana Turner. But she met someone on the set of that last film and consequently became Mrs. Warren Beatty. Her career slowed down as she bore four children through the Clinton administration. (Four kids! And not one of them named Satchel, Rumer or Apple!) Although Bening never completely went away, her profile has diminished considerably, with the notable exception of her widely praised role as Kevin Spacey’s wife in American Beauty. But now, with Being Julia, Bening seems to be back in the game and poised to reclaim her mantle.

To say that Bening is the best reason to see Being Julia isn’t to slight the film itself: It’s a concoction like well-made lemon meringue pie–light and fluffy on top, tart and substantial underneath. When we meet Bening’s Julia, it’s London in 1938 in those last days of happiness, and she’s acting in yet another West End hit, a middlebrow melodrama of the sort they had so much of before the invention of television. Julia’s bored with the long-running play, bored with her long-running sexless marriage to the theater’s impresario (Jeremy Irons), and she’s even bored with her long-running sexless affair with an aristocrat (who’s obviously a confirmed bachelor). Phallic excitement arrives in the form of Tom (newcomer Shaun Evans), a young and brash American who’s been hired to help manage the theater. An affair commences, Julia’s acting grows more inspired, and she becomes dangerously attached to her penniless and careless Lothario. Inevitably, the story enters All About Eve territory, as Tom’s other girlfriend, a young wannabe, has designs on Julia’s position in the theater.

Being Julia is a light and tasty trifle, and it’s a surprising departure for both director Szabo and screenwriter Ronald Harwood. Working together for the second time, Szab and Harwood are both specialists in anguished moral dramas of the 20th century’s darkest hours. Szabo is known for Mephisto and more recently for Sunshine, an epic tour de force that showed the rise and fall of a family of Hungarian Jewish distillers over the course of four generations, from the optimism of the late 19th century to the ashen reality of 1945. Harwood also works this territory as a screenwriter: He’s best known for penning The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s Warsaw Ghetto drama of two years ago, and he also wrote Taking Sides, an imagination of the post-war moral inquisition against orchestra conductor and Nazi collaborator Wilhelm Furtwangler, which was directed by Szabo.

But with Being Julia, Szabo and Harwood take a timeout and indulge themselves in the orderly and refined Europe that was enjoying its last days as the barbarians gathered in the east. It’s a world of packed theaters, maitres d’ that know your name, dancing to live music in fine clothes all day long. It’s an era of refinement that we can’t seem to get enough of in the movies, and for all we know, this high culture never existed. But Szabo and Harwood, after so much of their careers dedicated to the near-destruction of European civilization, have earned the right to this indulgence.

Like the recently released Stage Beauty–and most other stories about acting, from Hamlet on down–Being Julia eventually becomes an investigation into the nature of performance itself. Is acting an act of imitation, or is it an act of being? Julia has a teenaged son who accuses her of only speaking in roles, of never experiencing or expressing an authentic emotion. Accordingly, in the early stages of her affair with Tom, Julia simply plays the role of a middle-aged woman having a naughty but pleasurable fling. It’s only when she loses control of the situation that her ungovernable feelings come to the fore. This point is underlined heavily by the presence of Michael Gambon as Jimmy, Julia’s late acting mentor, who appears perfectly naturally from time to time as a ghost chiding Julia for failing to act authentically.

To Jimmy, who represents a school of theatrical existentialism that goes back to at least Shakespeare, life is performance–all the world’s a stage. So, at the moment of Julia’s greatest grief and humiliation, Jimmy’s at her shoulder praising her as she weeps bitter tears. And we in the audience, on the other side of the fourth wall, watch Bening weep most piteously and most convincingly.