To Olivia

 

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A real-life tale is presented in a manner that never feels real. 

 
To Olivia
  

The 1981 TV movie The Patricia Neal Story, in which the actress was played by Glenda Jackson, concentrated on the period of Neal’s marriage to the novelist Roald Dahl (Dirk Bogarde). It was a modest piece but certainly more effective than To Olivia which is centred on that same marriage, albeit limited to an earlier stage of it. In Keeley Hawes this new film has an able player whose appearance does carry a suggestion of the real Patricia Neal and Hugh Bonneville who takes the role of Roald Dahl is a good actor, but neither can bring to life a piece which, as scripted by David Logan and its director John Hay, has a tone that is totally synthetic. It is regrettably matched by Debbie Wiseman's score, for this is a film in which music is poured over scene after scene and, just as was also the case recently with Stefan Gregory's score for The Dig, it is always a relief on the rare occasions when it lets up.

 

The film's title refers to the couple's daughter, Olivia, who died at the age of seven and the impact of that death on both parents is at the heart of this film. Despite the serious nature of that, To Olivia opens with some self-conscious comedy at a school where Roald Dahl is reading from his latest book for children. Shortly thereafter we witness disputes between the couple and at this point the tone does change and the film leads on to the tragic death of Olivia. The narrative then carries through to 1964 but it stops short of the stroke which made Neal's health a major factor in her life thereafter and which was the chief focus in The Patricia Neal Story. Instead, once Olivia's death has occurred, the film focuses primarily on two matters: one is Dahl's writing block following the loss of Olivia (it found him tearing up manuscripts in which he had no confidence) and the other is Neal's decision to leave England in order to resume her screen career by acting in Hud.

 

As portrayed here, Dahl emerges as a very dislikable figure, yet even more harmful to the appeal of the film is its lack of conviction. It's a relatively minor matter when late on Sam Heughan proves quite incapable of persuading us that he is Paul Newman, but it is a major issue when scenes of Dahl writing show him with what appears to be an imaginary boy present as though to imply that he needs to enter a child's perspective to inspire him. An episode with Dahl's old headmaster Geoffrey Fisher, now Archbishop of Canterbury, provides a cameo for the late Geoffrey Palmer. However, it plays like a writer's set piece rather than as a true to life scene. Once we get to Hollywood we may be able to accept Conleth Hill as the director Martin Ritt but the way in which Neal is shown overcoming an initial inability to get into her role seems totally unpersuasive. Despite the stalwart efforts of the leading players, I didn't believe a word if it.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Keeley Hawes, Conleth Hill, Geoffrey Palmer, Michael Jibson, Isabella Jonsson, Darcey Ewart, Bobby O'Neill, Bodhi Marsan, Sam Heughan, Sam Phillips, Jane-Charlotte Jones.

 

Dir John Hay, Pro Donall McCusker, Nick Quested and Adrian Politowski, Screenplay John Hay and David Logan, from the book An Unquiet Life by Stephen Michael Shearer, Ph Graham Frake, Pro Des Richard Bullock, Ed Colin Goudie, Music Debbie Wiseman, Costumes Suzie Harman.

 

Align/Atticus Pictures/Goldcrest Features-Spirit Entertainment.
99 mins. UK. 2021. Rel: 19 February 2021. Available on Sky Cinema and Now TV. Cert. PG.