The formidable British actress Glenda Jackson was at the height of her dramatic powers in the ’70s, winning two Oscars for Best Actress before the first half of the decade was through. However, even a great performer has difficulty making overly intellectualized material compelling, and that’s the obstacle Jackson encounters in Stevie. Adapted from a stage play about the late poetess Stevie Smith, a troubled artist who led a spinster’s lifestyle but enjoyed a vivid creative dialogue with her small circle of friends and relatives, the picture is a string of monologues and two-character vignettes. Most of the picture depicts Stevie (Jackson) spending time at home with her widowed aunt (Mona Washbourne), though a brief flurry of activity occurs when Stevie rebuffs the marriage proposal of a lifelong friend, Freddy (Alec McCowen). Stevie and her aunt engage in quasi-clever verbal jousting, and Stevie recites a great many of her gloomy poems, the majority of which are preoccupied with death and loss.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Stevie is suffocatingly polite, so even though the acting and writing are sharp, there’s a considerable tedium factor. Pretentiousness is a problem, as well—although director Robert Enders’ visual style is unassuming, the contrivance of Jackson periodically leaving scenes to address the audience feels like an artsy cheat, and the film’s least effective device is its most precious: Trevor Howard appears in transitional scenes playing a character known only as “The Man,” offering pithy remarks as he wanders through random locations. For instance, after Stevie attempts suicide, The Man comments thusly: “Death, that sweet and gentle friend, failed to respond to her summons. Life continued.” There’s no questioning the seriousness of this film’s intentions, nor is there any questioning the viability of Stevie as the subject for a biopic, but writer Hugh Whitemore’s failure to transform his play into a filmic narrative results in a flat presentation. One could defend this approach on a metaphorical level, since there’s an obvious parallel between Stevie’s monastic lifestyle and the film’s visual austerity, but that doesn’t make the experience of watching Stevie any more exciting.