Recent months may have made us question our image of author Roald Dahl, but Sky Cinema’s To Olivia was filmed well before the controversy surfaced about some of his political views. Essentially a portrait of an important period in his marriage to American actress Patricia Neale, it’s a story of love rather than a love story.
The film traces a period in their relationship when they lived in picturesque Buckinghamshire with their three children – Olivia, the eldest, her sister Tessa and little brother Theo. Dahl’s (Hugh Bonneville) children’s books aren’t selling well, making Pat (Keeley Hawes) the breadwinner, so she is desperately looking for a new acting role. Unpaid bills are piling up and then tragedy strikes, when Olivia dies from measles encephalitis. It shatters both parents, but Roald has the most difficulty coping with it, retreating to his writing studio with bottles of whisky, and the marriage comes under strain. And when Pat wins a plum role alongside Paul Newman (Sam Heughan) in Hud, not only is her career is back on track, but it seems like the perfect opportunity for the couple to have some space from each other to recover.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this will be a romantic drama, given the swirling music surrounding the opening credits and the early scenes shared between the two, but it quickly becomes clear that, while there is genuine love between them, something more tempestuous simmers below the surface. To the outside world, though, they’re the perfect family in their rambling country house on the edge of the small town. Dahl’s stories are woven into the narrative: his conversations with Olivia when they visit the local sweetshop point in a very clear direction, her favourite doll is called Matilda and the children listening to him reading at the very start are all treated to fresh peaches. Olivia’s death widens the cracks already forming in the relationship as Roald sinks into the deepest of depressions, burying his grief in silence and isolation, only eventually letting go after an encounter with an old mentor from his childhood (the late Geoffrey Palmer in his final screen appearance).
It’s just as much a story about parental love as the romantic variety, as well as the profound grief that goes with losing a child. There’s something inherently unnatural in outliving your children – that’s not the way it’s supposed to be – that makes the experience even more desperate. But this was the 60s and talking about such feelings still wasn’t the done thing, so Dahl seeks solace in the bottle. In what often feels and looks like a solid TV drama rather than a feature film, there are two key relationships: Roald and Pat, and Roald’s relationships with his daughters, initially Olivia and latterly Tessa. A sprinkle of Hollywood glamour from Pat’s movie work provides a change of scene and a welcome touch of sunshine and blue skies, but aside from that this is a sombre film, with a palette to match.
There are times when Hugh Bonneville’s Dahl seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders and, indeed, he certainly has to carry the weight of the film. Just about recognisable under make up and heavy prosthetics – not always of the greatest subtlety – he acquits himself well and the spark between him and Hawes is there when it’s needed. But he seems more at ease firing up Olivia’s (Darcey Ewert) imagination with his stories, or building bridges with the more vulnerable Tessa (an enchanting Isabella Jonsson). Yet for a film that bills itself as the story of a turbulent marriage, it ends on a decidedly rosy note, with everything neatly tied up and another baby on the way. The truth was rather different and an entire story in itself, with a pregnant Pat in a coma for three weeks after a stroke and going through gruelling therapy which, ultimately, allowed her to walk and talk again. Although that was the subject of a film in the 80s, the soft focus of To Olivia’s conclusion creates an overly-cosy impression of an extraordinary life that was lived almost totally in the public eye. And the film as a whole never quite reaches the emotional heights that it aims for.
Drama, Biopic | Cert: PG | Sky Cinema | 19 February 2021 | Dir. John Hay | Hugh Bonneville, Keeley Hawes, Darcey Ewert, Isabella Jonsson, Sam Heughan, Geoffrey Palmer.