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* Stevie has taken the movie world by surprise. A literate and carefully directed drama, based on the life and work of British poet Stevie Smith, it sat on the shelf for a few years while the distributors told themselves how uncommercial it was. Then it opened in New York, for a very limited run, and garnered more rave reviews than anything this side of "Star Wars." It's now doing well in a regular engagement, and -- if things continue at this clip -- should soon expand to other screens in other cities.

All of which is most uncommon, considering that most of the action takes place in a sitting room, where the main character frets about life in suburbia while her middle-aged aunt fusses over the geraniums. Not the stuff of cinematic fireworks in the age of "Superman II," but real and human, for all that -- and intelligent,m both visually and verbally, under the restrained guidance of director Robert Enders.

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The film's drawing power stems largely from Glenda Jackson's performance in the title role: There's hardly a false note in her portrayal of a woman both blessed and cursed with the special vision of art. Huddling in the suburbs, her Stevie clings to dull jobs and friends as little islands of support in the sea of her turbulent psyche. Needing them despite their obvious limitations, she never scorns or belittles them, and neither does the movie. Thus the utterly ordinary maiden aunt played by Mona Washbourne becomes a vigorous dramatic figure, and even the faintly ridiculous suitor played by Alec McCowen (complete with tennis racquet) takes on his own firm dignity. "Stevie" is a tribute to them and their unprepossessing lives, even as it tries to peer beneath Miss Smith's own defenses, giving us frightening glimpses of the tormented inner self from which her poetry poured. It's a strong and compelling achievement.

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