Evidently "Stevie" was intended to create a portrait of the artist -- British poet and novelist Stevie Smith -- largely through her own writings. It orginated in playwright Hugh Whitmore's stage play, but the film is so inert that one can't imagine it as effective theater either. And Robert Enders' first attempt at directing isn't merely awkward -- it's oppressively lifeless.
Born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull in 1902, Stevie Smith accompanied her older sister and sickly mother to live with a maiden aunt, Miss Spear, whom she later dubbed "The Lion of Hull," in the North London suburbs of Palmers Green in 1905. Although she began to attain prominence as a novelist and poet in the mid-'30s, while employed as the private sectetary for a magazine publisher, Smith maintained the residence in Palmers Green and devotedly nursed her aunt for several years before she died. Smith herself died in 1971.
Her poems were often meditations about death, and her best stuff has a distinctively humorous, incisive, haunting quality. For example: "Sisley/ Walked so nicely/With footsteps so discreet/To see her pass/You'd never guess/She walked upon the street./ Down where the Liffy waters' turgid flood/Churns up to greet the oceandriven mud/A bruiser in a fix/Murdered her for 6/6."
Or: "Nobody heard him, the dead man,/But still he lay moaning:/I was much further out than you thought/ And not waving but drowning./Poor chap he always loved larking/And now he's dead/It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,/They said./Oh, no no no, it was too cold always/(Still the dead one lay moaning)/I was much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning."
There's also the admirably witty brevity of "This Englishworman": "This Englishwoman is so refined/She has no bosom and no behind." This figure seems to find her equivalent in "the young men of Eng." who "see in their dreams a little home/And kiddies /Ah the kiddies /They would not mind having babies/It is unkind/ Of nature to lag behind."
Clearly, Smith had a unique voice and outlook. But when Glenda Jackson, who evidently mistook this play for a tour de force , utters Smith's final line of verse, one welcomes it as a deliverance from the movie rather than a fitting conclusion to the poet's life and art: "Come Death. Do not be slow." Enders may have perpetrated the least cinematic movie since the advent of sound.
In the film versions of "California Suite" or "Same Time, Next Year" workable stage illusions may still be perceived behind the arbitrary jaunts and scene-changes inserted to "open up" the text. "Stevie" never seems to have had a dramatic setting.
The text resolves itself into protracted, static monologues, either recollections or poetry recitals entrusted to Jackson or commentary and recitals entrusted to a grotesque invention called The Man, a kind of stage manager-literary executor played by Trevor Howard. The only whisper of dramatic conflict occurs in a trumped-up interlude with Alec McCowen as a suburban suitor.
Mona Washbourne's lovably eccentric presence as the aunt keeps a few embers of human interest flickering, but her character seems like a prop, especially when Stevie addresses the audience without auntie supposedly being able to hear. When Miss Spear dies, the movie surrenders its one fragile hold on an audience's good will.
What lured Jackson into this particular dead end? Admiration for Smith? The prospect of a one-woman show, or of seeming to age before our eyes again? The opportunity to recite a long but dreadfully thin anecdote about the poet's brief encounter with the Queen? Foolish things often happen when show folks confuse literary small talk with lofty spiritual biography. "Stevie" diminishes both subject and star.