Michael Tully’s film Lover, Beloved is a meta endeavor. Essentially, it is an attempt to artistically interpret songwriter Suzanne Vega’s preexisting artistic interpretation of two talks given by renowned 1940s southern novelist Carson McCullers. Originally, this work was performed as a live play by Vega and an album Lover, Beloved: Songs From an Evening with Carson McCullers. Vega now plays McCullers in this film adaptation. Using a speech given at the height of McCullers’s fame in her early twenties and a talk given near the end of her life in the late 1960s as a launching point to bring forth the most interesting chapters of Carson McCullers’s vibrant life in a collection of songs, stories, and monologues.
Biopics, especially those that highlight figures that were once historically marginalized or limited, are culturally prominent at the moment. Carson McCullers’s personal and professional story — a renowned writer in major literary circles with a complicated marriage, a queer identity, a codependence on her mother, and a lifelong battle with severe health ailments — is worthy of some cultural uplifting. Vega read McCullers’s work as a young woman and has been obsessed with her ever since, and McCullers story certainly seems to be in the right hands, as Vega paints a deeply empathetic, loving picture of McCullers as an artist who loved deeply, created powerfully, but simultaneously seemed destined to a certain solitude.
Vega’s interpretation of McCullers’s life story is skillful, centering upon the most intriguing chapters of McCullers’s life, including her marriage, divorce, and remarriage to the same man, her lifelong infatuation with a woman, her longterm battle with terminal illness, and her musings about both her writing and the literary circles she was entangled in. Pivotal emotional shifts and the internal turmoil behind some of McCullers’s decisions, are marked by spotlight-lit songs of introspection, ranging from the love she feels for her abusive husband to the petty anger she feels toward being compared to other female novelists of the time.
This specific adaptation of Lover, Beloved plays with the cinematic form to an almost experimental degree. Instead of opting to adapt the play to an anticipated narrative biopic format, Tully instead essentially recreates an intimate, controlled night at the theater. Lover, Beloved takes place onstage, as it would in its original form, with Vega performing from simple, stylized sets — a kitchen, a front porch, a stage in front of an imagined crowd.
Tully rightfully gives Vega’s work breathing room, choosing not to intrude with complicated directorial choices and opting for a theatrical aesthetic above all else. While certain sets and lighting are potentially slightly more elevated and stylized than they could be in a live theater format, I’m not certain that the cinematic interpretation adds more than the original theater production would, except, of course, by allowing this piece of work to reach a larger audience.
While Lover, Beloved is likely best enjoyed in its original form, in front of a live audience in a theatrical space, it succeeds as a film in both bringing Vega’s thoughtful work and McCullers’s story to a wider audience with skillful execution.