“Tom & Viv”
Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas
Credits: Directed by Brian Gilbert from the stage play by Michael Hastings, starring Miranda Richardson, Willem Dafoe, Rosemary Harris and Tim Dutton.
Running time: 1:54
‘Tom & Viv” is director Brian Gilbert’s version of the tempestuous marriage between Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot and his first wife Vivian Haigh-Wood.
And in keeping with any profile of such an august character, the film for much of its run seems calculated to buoy Eliot’s sterling reputation as a brilliantly literate and discreet man.
It’s only at the end that we get the more complete view that playwright Michael Hastings intended when he initially drafted his stage play of the same name in 1984.
Only then does Eliot’s darker side emerge, just as it does throughout the man’s poetic masterpiece, “The Waste Land.”
Eliot, an intensely private man, seldom talked about his first marriage. And according to Hastings, who co-wrote the screenplay with Adrian Hodges, he had good reason.
“Tom & Viv” begins in 1915, shortly after the lovers meet. And from the start, they prove to be mismatched souls. Tom (to his friends) is a brilliant American scholar doing graduate work at Oxford. He is, if anything, more strait-laced than any Englishman.
Vivian is the only daughter of a refined (read stuffy) British couple. Naturally buoyant, she acts more American than St. Louis-born Tom.
Yet she sees him as a rebel colonialist, a poet wannabe. And she envisions the two of them living in a garret someplace, shaping great works of art together.
He sees the two of them - well, probably - living the upper-class existence that leads him from his college quarters to a banker’s life and, eventually, the scholarly existence of a distinguished publisher/lecturer. Whatever else, it isn’t in a state of poverty.
How Tom envisioned the high-spirited Vivian fitting into this stately vision of a life isn’t clear. Maybe he was charmed by her connection to British culture, maybe the lure of her father’s estate. Maybe it was the promise of sexual favors that would seem to be in keeping with a woman of 1915 who throws herself at a man.
Regardless, before long Tom realizes his mistake.
He discovers that Vivian’s impetuous nature is part of an overall pattern of emotional imbalance. Her “women’s troubles,” which entail continual menstrual bleeding, are accompanied by manic mood swings.
And so the two begin their long life together (their marriage ended with her death in 1947). All the while, the two of them love each other as well as they can, he writing his poems and essays in search of an audience, she living in his shadow and slowly, to all outside eyes, going insane.
Miranda Richardson was nominated for an Academy Award for her work here, as was supporting actress Rosemary Harris who plays her mostly understanding mother. Both are superb, with Richardson at least matching Oscar-winner Jessica Lange’s work in “Blue Sky.”
Willem Dafoe was a strange casting choice as Eliot, but he is effective at portraying both the man’s sense of constipated decency and shadowy inner self. His Eliot truly is a complicated character.
In the end, the filmmakers judge both Eliot and the often quacky British medical establishment. At least in terms of Eliot, some viewers may not agree with their assessment.
But the way that Gilbert et al. come to their conclusion makes for captivating viewing - especially in how it involves a secretive man who once wrote of “measur(ing) out his life in coffee spoons.”
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