Metro Weekly

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

Reel Affirmations 2005

Review by Nancy Legato

Rating: starstar (2 out of 5)

Tuesday, 10/18/2005, 7:00 PM
Feature presentation, $6 at Cecile Goldman Theater at the DCJCC
French with English subtitles

THE DELIGHTFUL AND prolific May Sarton wrote more than 50 books over her six-decade career. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing was considered her ”coming out” novel. Known generally for being intensely self-reflective and cerebral, Sarton’s delicate internal search for answers to such questions as the role of women as artists, the nature of human relationships, and the relationship of humanity to divinity found special eloquence in her 1965 work. Now, director Linda Thornburg has been ambitious enough to attempt a film version of Sarton’s novel, with mixed results.

At 70, Sarton’s protagonist and exemplar female author Hilary Stevens publishes a new volume of poetry. On the occasion of a visit by two young interviewers, Stevens takes the opportunity to reflect on her life, her loves, and her work. Like many Sarton works, Mrs. Stevens is a deceptively quiet exploration of major questions of her time, questions that made her work meaningful to feminist scholars starting in the 1970s and through the present. Mrs. Stevens wonders whether and how women lead creative lives, when they are raised to be mothers and housewives. She explores where writers find their muses, and how the muse may change over time.

Today, some of these questions are moot, but it is nevertheless a treat to observe how one woman’s life has been lived, and how she made art out of it. However, even for a novel, Mrs. Stevens reflects an extremely internalized process. Showing it on a big screen presents as many challenges as making a film version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, another novel with an abundance of internal dialogue and a progression of moments of awareness rather than any particularly rigid plotline. In some ways, Thornburg has succeeded in carrying the atmosphere of bittersweet memory onto the screen; warm fabrics and rich musical backgrounds highlight the vibrancy of Hilary’s memories of a life well-lived.

In counterpoint, however, are long conversations about the nature of the muse, whether women can afford to be as impractical as men, etc. between Hilary Stevens and her interviewers. Though interesting topics, as film subject this makes for rather dry conversation that may bore all but the most devoted Sarton fan, undertaken in settings that are empty and prosaic in comparison to the settings of Hilary’s past. In fact, one almost has the sense of watching two films with two different budgets, two different aesthetics, and two different directors. Though Mrs. Stevens the film means well, I would rather spend an evening with Mrs. Stevens the novel.

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

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