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.

Rebecca: Netflix Film Review

Rebecca

Daphne du Maurier‘s famed 1938 Gothic novel Rebecca has been adapted for the screen many times, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, and now Ben Wheatley tries to put his own spin on the well-known story in this latest adaptation for Netflix.

The film begins in Monte Carlo, with the unnamed narrator (played by Lily James) serving as a companion/assistant to the rich Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). Van Hopper fancies the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and sees herself as the next lady of Manderley, his sprawling estate on the English coast, but he falls for her companion instead. After a brief courtship, the duo gets married and head home. The new Mrs. de Winter realises that Manderley is haunted by the memory of his first wife Rebecca, who died a year before, and the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) likes to make sure she never escapes Rebecca’s shadow.

I was really surprised when Wheatley signed up for this. He has directed a novel adaptation before (with High-Rise) but that was still quite oddball, quirky and indie, so I wouldn’t have expected a new version of Rebecca – a Gothic romance thriller which is incredibly well-known – would have appealed to him as there is little room to put his own stamp on it. And there isn’t much sign of him here at all – Rebecca (adapted here by Jane Goldman) is classic, inoffensive, mainstream, and very loyal to the novel. It’s miles away from Free Fire, that’s for sure. And I LOVED Free Fire.

Wheatley has reunited with his Free Fire co-star Hammer for Rebecca and I was very impressed with his convincing British accent. He has such a distinct voice I just assumed it wouldn’t be good or consistent or it would have felt put-on, but no, it was a decent, natural-sounding British accent. He fits the bill as Maxim, as does James as the lead. She does well going from naive and timid in the beginning to strong and assertive nearer the end, but this isn’t one of her more impressive performances. The star of the show is, of course, Scott Thomas as the cold and calculating Mrs. Danvers, who had been devoted to Rebecca since she was a child and cannot stand this new replacement. She was perfectly cast in the role. There is also great support from Sam Riley as Rebecca’s cousin Jack Favell, Keeley Hawes as Maxim’s sister, and Tom Goodman-Hill as his estate manager Frank.

I’m assuming this is designed to entertain a new generation that is less familiar with du Maurier’s work, as I’m damn sure that knowing the ending will remove any sense of intrigue or excitement watching this. I must admit that I have neither read the novel nor watched an adaptation, so I cannot say if it brings anything fresh to the table compared with its predecessors, but I can give a newcomer’s perspective. Some revelations seemed obvious to me, while others – particularly about Rebecca’s past – took me by surprise. I was interested watching the twists and turns play out but I wouldn’t go as far to say I was gripped or hooked. I started to get into it more towards the end and then it was all over!

Rebecca is a beautiful film to look at, with stunning European locations, English coastline landscapes and costumes, but it didn’t make me feel very much.

In selected cinemas from Friday 16th October and on Netflix from 21st October

Rating: 3 out of 5.