A troubled woman with a difficult past, humidity that hangs like condemnation in the air and a drawl as thick as honey, if not always as sweet. That’s Tennessee Williams country and it’s right where we find Bryce Dallas Howard’s Memphis heiress, Fisher Willow, in “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,” a prospecting venture into a once rich creative vein.
Like Fisher, the film is lovely, if flawed. It is the first feature from director Jodie Markell, a Memphis native herself, from a screenplay the famed man wrote in the late ‘50s in hopes of collaborating again with director Elia Kazan, with whom he arguably had his greatest screen success with 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
It was also a sort of love on the rebound work for Williams, written after the painful public drubbing he got for the experiment of “Orpheus Descending” on Broadway.
Never produced, then shelved these last 50 years (I suspect because it feels like an early draft), “Teardrop Diamond” comes to us with its characters not fully fleshed to their breaking or boiling point, the playwright’s specialty. Instead, the film is more like an old photo album that conjures up faded memories, with Markell fearful of dusting off the cobwebs in deference to the master.
Despite “Teardrop Diamond’s” rough edges, the filmmaker, who has spent much of her career acting on stage and screen, succeeds in transporting us back to that other time; capturing the lyricism of the dialogue and the fetid South that Williams so brilliantly envisioned where nearly everything goes to rot.
The central players definitely feel like kin, with Fisher a cousin of Williams’ other damaged women -- Blanche DuBois of “Streetcar,” “The Glass Menagerie’s” Laura, Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” -- in this tale of class constraints, emotional fragility and tempestuous relationships.
It’s the 1920s and the film opens with Howard’s moneyed beauty in her fine Paris fashions clutching a whiskey bottle and swaying to the beat in a blues joint on the wrong side of town.
Though she’s the only white face, it’s clear that she’s not a stranger here and the place as much as the bottle brings her comfort. But in the tradition of Williams’ heroines, she’s about to bring her problems and her scandals back home.
In Fisher’s case, the coming out parties for Memphis’ upper crust young and unattached, designed as much with good business as good marriages in mind, will be the setting.
All of Williams’ archetypes and themes begin to line up in a row with the sins of Fisher’s father -- a rich, scheming shadowy scoundrel we never get to know -- the starting point for everything she is rebelling against. Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans) is the object of Fisher’s interest if not yet affection, an impoverished and angry young hunk whose alcoholic father is under the thumb of Fisher’s father and whose mother is in an asylum, having lost her mind years ago.
He’s conscripted and outfitted to take Fisher to the parties that her hovering proper aunt (Ann-Margret) is pushing her to attend.
Competition comes in the form of Jessica Collins’ red-headed, hot-blooded Vinnie, a college friend of Jimmy’s vying for his attention with sex and desperation.
Finally, there is the flawless Ellen Burstyn as Miss Addie, the dying, worldly older woman who understands Fisher’s issues better than she does.
Fisher’s loss of a borrowed earring, a priceless piece, becomes the talisman for all the troubles she will face before the end of the film. It happens during an impetuous moment when Fisher jumps out of a car as she and Jimmy arrive, mid-argument, at a party that will quickly turn disastrous.
Like the diamond in question, Markell approaches the screenplay as if it is both priceless and untouchable, an acolyte unwittingly exposing its failings as a result. Though conceived for the big screen, “Teardrop’s” set pieces are constructed more like a play, with car rides to this place or that bridging the few spots where the action takes place.
Howard has the ‘20s look and the Memphis accent down beautifully, helping to create the moody, bluesy feel of the film (with much help from cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, production and costume designers Richard Hoover and Chrisi Karvonides, respectively).
When Fisher lingers with Jimmy on a levy overlooking the Mississippi, you can sense her ease, just as you feel the tension rising as the Memphis society girls come at her, claws barely sheathed.
But there’s unfinished business here, with characters coming in broad strokes, thornier issues barely sketched out.
Fisher doesn’t have the depth or shadings of Blanche or Maggie or other indelible Williams women, despite Howard’s best efforts. Evans is given even less with which to create Jimmy, his rage in need of a lot more simmering. Will Patton as Jimmy’s boozy dad and Barbara Garrick as his silently deranged mother are mere shadows of ideas. With the exception of Burstyn -- her Addie trapped in a deteriorating body by strokes, hatching an opium escape plan -- everyone else, filmmakers and actors alike, feels as if they are paying homage to Williams.
Still, “Teardrop Diamond” remains a film to savor, rich in ways that are all too rare today. Consider it a treasure of the unpolished sort.