To Olivia: Film Review

To Olivia

I was a massive fan of Roald Dahl‘s children’s books – particularly Matilda and The Twits – growing up and have enjoyed many adaptations of his work, but I knew nothing about his personal life, so I learned a lot from the new biographical drama To Olivia.

The film, directed by John Hay, is set in 1962 and focuses on the tumultuous marriage between the British author (played by Hugh Bonneville) and his American actress wife Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes) and their life in the English countryside with their children Olivia (Darcey Ewart), Tessa (Isabella Jonsson), and baby Theo. Their world is turned upside down when Olivia dies at the age of seven from encephalitis caused by measles and they have very different ways of coping with the loss, with Dahl packing up Olivia’s belongings and refusing to say her name and being frosty towards his other children.

I genuinely expected To Olivia to make me cry and had emotionally prepared myself for the likelihood of that happening so I was surprised that I didn’t even come close. This could be because Olivia’s death takes place very early in the film when you haven’t got to know her or her parents very well or because the film never really digs beneath the surface or gets under the skin of the characters. You know they’re grieving, they act like they’re grieving, but you don’t feel it. This could also be down to Dahl being a cantankerous, moody, unhelpful and mostly likely alcoholic husband and father, so you just feel sorry for Neal and don’t blame her for flying off to Hollywood with the kids to have a break from home and make a movie.

From there, their differences seem to be resolved far too quickly. Although I didn’t want to see them wallowing in their bereavement for the whole movie, it just felt like they didn’t grieve for very long and moved on too quickly (I’m sure they didn’t but the movie makes it seem that way). Olivia’s death has a positive impact on Neal as she’s able to access more emotions and play more complex characters, leading her to win the Best Actress Oscar for Hud, while Dahl starts to accept Tessa’s suggestions about his book (something previously reserved for his favourite, Olivia) and with her help, he finishes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It all just seems too neat and tidy.

I wasn’t totally convinced that Bonneville was the right man for the job. He didn’t look much like Dahl and I associate him with pleasant characters so I didn’t really buy him as this often mean and selfish person. The audience is most likely to emotionally connect with Hawes as Neal as she is more kind and compassionate, although Hawes’ American accent was inconsistent and didn’t feel natural. Jonsson was adorable as Tessa, who wants a close relationship with her father like Olivia had, and Sam Heughan makes a small but significant appearance as Neal’s Hud co-star Paul Newman, who doesn’t suffer any fools or care about her tragedy.

There are some aspects of the film I loved though – I have to mention the fantastic animated visuals during the opening credits as they tell the story of Dahl and Neal’s lives from childhood to 1962 in a clever montage. I must also mention Debbie Wiseman‘s beautiful score. The melody has stuck with me for days and it was more effective in evoking an emotional feeling in me than the actors or the storytelling. It’s gorgeous.

To Olivia is an interesting yet flawed study of grief and how people deal with loss differently. I hardly ever say a film should be longer but I think in this case it needed more time to tell the story and make the audience connect with it emotionally.

Available on Sky Cinema from Friday 19th February

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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