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REVIEW | Back to Tennessee: Jodie Markell's "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond"

By Jeff Reichert | Indiewire December 28, 2009 at 4:22AM

First-time filmmaker Jodie Markell's "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond," is based on a never-produced Tennessee Williams screenplay completed during his late 1950s heyday. Yet, surprisingly, the film's pedigree and source material isn't the sole reason to recommend this decades-late cinematic rendering. Far from perfect, "Teardrop" is at its best when it approximates Terence Davies territory: that is to say in those instances when it abandons the forward march of events in favor of mood and reverie. The film's wordless prologue, in which a group of men dynamite a levy for mysterious reasons late at night, fades into a lit-from-above introduction of its flapper heroine, Fisher Willow (lamely named, but gamely played by a boozy, barely in control Bryce Dallas Howard), which recalled for me nothing so much as the breathlessly artificial opening of Davies's "The House of Mirth," in which we first meet Gillian Anderson's Lily Bart. Whether she's consciously emulating the British master or not (and Markell's control over her images and montage isn't on his level), that the comparison can even be made elevates "Teardrop" above the fray. Like that of Davies, Markell's film, scored with the crackle and hiss of a gramophone, feels beamed here from another time.
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First-time filmmaker Jodie Markell's "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond," is based on a never-produced Tennessee Williams screenplay completed during his late 1950s heyday. Yet, surprisingly, the film's pedigree and source material isn't the sole reason to recommend this decades-late cinematic rendering. Far from perfect, "Teardrop" is at its best when it approximates Terence Davies territory: that is to say in those instances when it abandons the forward march of events in favor of mood and reverie. The film's wordless prologue, in which a group of men dynamite a levy for mysterious reasons late at night, fades into a lit-from-above introduction of its flapper heroine, Fisher Willow (lamely named, but gamely played by a boozy, barely in control Bryce Dallas Howard), which recalled for me nothing so much as the breathlessly artificial opening of Davies's "The House of Mirth," in which we first meet Gillian Anderson's Lily Bart. Whether she's consciously emulating the British master or not (and Markell's control over her images and montage isn't on his level), that the comparison can even be made elevates "Teardrop" above the fray. Like that of Davies, Markell's film, scored with the crackle and hiss of a gramophone, feels beamed here from another time.

Fisher's one of those very typically Williams women--bound up by the codes of her day (here the Roaring Twenties in less-than-progressive Memphis), resisting to degrees, successful and unsuccessful in her attempts to carve a niche for her individuality. The script cues us in to how the strictures of the South confuse class and racial relationships, how vague ideas like "honor" and "propriety" introduce nuances throughout the social strata. This is Williams's wheelhouse. Fisher's dark bob, low-backed dresses, and proclivity for booze and jazz make her an outcast in the rigid social scene her family wishes she'd circulate in, but as the season commences, engagements must be kept, so in a fit of pique she enlists the handyman's son, Jimmy Dobyne (a well-chinned, but seemingly lost Chris Evans), to serve as her escort to a variety of balls and parties. The odd affair that progresses will be familiar to Williams aficionados; in it we can see echoes of the Blanche/Stanley power plays from "A Streetcar Named Desire," but here with the roles largely reversed -- even though his class status makes him her lesser, Jimmy still adheres to the rules that Fisher flaunts.

At the crucial party that marks the pivot point of the film's power dynamics (and occupies a welcomely ungainly portion of "Teardrop"'s odd structure), Ellen Burstyn drops in as a bedridden grandmother of one of Fisher's contemporaries. She's lived a life abroad, speaks to Fisher of the cultural openness in Shanghai, and asks that the girl euthanize her by the evening's end with opiates. She also stops the film dead in its tracks with a monologue that goes on for about ten minutes (seemingly eons), illuminating the main problem with Markell's handling of the script: fidelity. I'd not be shocked to learn that the production kept Williams's often lovely words intact (it comes as something of a surprise that this script was never produced) and held them sacrosanct against the needs of the less expository film that fights for breath here. Honoring Williams is a worthy pursuit, but Markell's film is never better than when it ditches the events that befall the characters in favor of honing in on time and place. Burstyn's introduction as aged foil and potential dire endpoint for Fisher's youthful perambulations, shot all in grossly lit and framed medium close-up, indicates what happens when image-making takes a backseat to writerly flourish. On the opposite end are striking compositions like Bryce Dallas Howard dancing alone in the yellow light of a speakeasy, eyes closed, booze in hand, or a later shot of Howard and Evans on the banks of the Mississippi silhouetted far too briefly against the nighttime sky. This is the stuff of cinema.

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently completing his first film, Gerrymandering

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