Accurately interpreting a Tennessee Williams story is as delicate as Blanche Dubois’ ego — manhandle either one and it crumbles from misuse. But Showtime’s incarnation of “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” rings truer to the original text than the acclaimed theatrical version in 1961 starring Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, with screenwriter Martin Sherman and director Robert Allan Ackerman proving themselves worthy caretakers.
Based on what many consider Williams’ most autobiographical work, “Mrs. Stone” explores several of the writer’s favorite themes including the fragility of the human psyche vs. the undeniable will for survival as well as splendor and decay amid fading youth and beauty.
Rather than rewriting Williams, Sherman distills the essence of the story — a repressed woman’s sexual awakening — into a provocative piece that relies as much on visuals as it does narrative. Ackerman, while still making great use of Williams’ pithy dialogue, allows his actors freedom to explore their characters’ motivations, however ambiguous.
The main trio — an aging actress (Helen Mirren), a young gigolo (“Unfaithful’s” Olivier Martinez) and a crafty survivor (Anne Bancroft) — are set adrift in life by circumstance, united through misfortune and ultimately divided by pride.
After abysmal reviews for her latest stage role, Broadway star Karen Stone heads to post-WWII Italy with her wealthy husband, Tom (Brian Dennehy). Set on retiring, Karen’s formerly structured life is dramatically uprooted when Tom suddenly dies of a heart attack. Alone and without direction, Karen finds her lack of purpose both scary and thrilling and decides to stay in the eternal city.
She makes the acquaintance of the Contessa (Bancroft), a former Italian aristocrat who, after losing her family fortune during the war, barely scrapes together a living by introducing lonely American women to handsome young Italians. The socially reserved Karen resists Contessa’s attempts at a setup until she meets smart and passionate Paolo (Martinez). Although quite taken with him, Karen is very careful not to fall into the Contessa’s carefully laid trap. Instead, Karen maneuvers Paolo into a traditional courtship dance, sidestepping any requests for money. As their relationship intensifies, Paolo taps into Karen’s latent sexuality and assuages her bruised ego. But need eventually outweighs desire, and her prideful ideals are forever compromised.
Hardly the poster woman for fading beauty, Mirren projects a certain amount of power and respect, even as the somewhat tenuous Karen. Tragically, it is the freedom her new life affords her that ultimately binds her to her fate.
Bancroft clearly relishes her role as the acrid Contessa, a once-dignified aristocrat reduced to stuffing leftover biscuits and cookies into her purse. Bitter but proud, her interpretation of Italian post-World War II sentiments is strikingly analogous to current events, intentional or not.
Martinez strikes a nice balance between seductive and sympathetic as the contradictory Paolo. Karen falls for him in part because he shares a good deal of her stubborn pride.
Ashley Rowe’s lensing provides marvelous Roman exteriors that alone make the film worth watching. Dona Granata’s costumes mirror the rich sensuality of the story. As Karen’s sexuality blossoms, so does her wardrobe, in stunning color and rich texture.