mon 01/03/2021

To Olivia review - Keeley Hawes rises above brainless biopic | reviews, news & interviews

To Olivia review - Keeley Hawes rises above brainless biopic

To Olivia review - Keeley Hawes rises above brainless biopic

Syrupy take on a tempestuous marriage

Chocolate, anyone? Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes in 'To Olivia'

Sure, Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but is that any excuse for a film quite so saccharine? He of all challenging and complex men, with a temperament to match, seems an odd subject for the sort of weightless, paint-by-numbers biopic that would be hard-pressed to muster much attention even as TV filler on a particularly dead night.

Sure, Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but is that any excuse for a film quite so saccharine? He of all challenging and complex men, with a temperament to match, seems an odd subject for the sort of weightless, paint-by-numbers biopic that would be hard-pressed to muster much attention even as TV filler on a particularly dead night.

As it is, made for the screen on what would appear to be astonishingly modest means (let's just say that Hollywood has rarely looked less convincing), this reckoning of Dahl's stormy first marriage to the Oscar-winning American actress Patricia Neal makes all the wrong turns. All, that is, except for Keeley Hawes, whose quicksilver intelligence as a Kentucky-born talent at odds with her emotionally clotted husband does what it can to save the day. 

Hugh Bonneville as Roald Dahl On one level, you can see the appeal. Here's a sort of Shadowlands tilted on its axis, to cite the William Nicholson title about an indrawn literary Englishman, CS Lewis, and the explosive American woman, Joy Gresham, who transformed his life. (Indeed, Hugh Bonneville, who plays Dahl here and is pictured above, starred in a 2019 revival of Shadowlands at Chichester.) But whereas Lewis was poleaxed by the grief accompanying the loss to cancer of his wife, the stricken family member in this instance is the young Olivia of the title – one of three children of the couple, their so-called "little zookeeper" who caught measles age 7 and died. (There was no vaccine for the resulting encephalitis in 1962, a shift in the medical landscape that resonates even more fully in our vaccine-hungry times just now.)

The bulk of the actual screen time in a script co-written (with David Logan) by the director, John Hay, is given over to the attraction of opposites between the emotive and emotional Neal and a husband who first woos her at a public event by letting slip that "he cooks a good breakfast": in reality, the pair are said to have actually met at a dinner party hosted by the playwright Lillian Hellman, whom Neal knew from her stage work in New York. 

Before long, the pair have set up home at Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire where Dahl's culinary prowess turns out to be far less significant than his inability to cry. (His philandering presumably came later.) In one scene, a bereft Neal impulsively hugs the postman in an effort to generate some human connection, while Dahl busies himself planting butter beans and obsessively starts packing away Olivia's things: out of sight is apparently out of mind.

Sam Heughan and Keeley Hawes in 'To Olivia'All this leaves daughter Tessa to offer a running commentary on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a manuscript of which is eventually delivered to Neal who, I kid you not, offers by way of return: "Like it? I love it – I absolutely love it!" (Of the two, Tessa would seem the more exacting literary critic.) Eager meanwhile to put her own career back on track, Neal is wooed by the film director Martin Ritt (played in a strangely camp turn by the usually remarkable Conleth Hill) to fly out to LA to join Paul Newman in the film Hud that led to her Oscar. That proposition leads to several peculiar encounters between Neal and Sam Heughan's sexually suggestive Newman (pictured above), who looks on this strapping evidence as if he'd like to do rather more with Neal than just shoot pool.

Accuracy and attentiveness to facts take a back seat throughout to the need to end things on a high, notwithstanding Neal having gone on to suffer three strokes on a single day in 1965 and the couple's eventual divorce. (Nor is anything made of the brain damage suffered by baby Theo as an infant.) "We all become stories in the end," Dahl's needling younger self is seen reminding the best-selling scribe in one of the occasional forays towards the meta taken by a script that otherwise inclines towards lines like "the Roald Dahl?!?" by way of nuance. You can only wonder what a peppery Geoffrey Palmer, on view here in his last film role as Dahl's onetime headteacher, might have made of this film given how dismissive he is to her face of Neal's career. If it's true that we all become stories in the end, let's hope they end up better told than this one.

Sam Heughan's sexually suggestive Paul Newman looks as if he'd like to do rather more with this Patricia Neal than just shoot pool

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Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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