To Olivia (2021)
Directed by: John Hay | 94 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Hugh Bonneville, Keeley Hawes, Darcey Ewart, Bobby O’Neill, Michael Jibson, Isabella Jonsson, Alfie Hardy, Tommy James Hardy, Geoffrey Palmer, Conleth Hill, Prue Clarke, Sam Heughan, Bodhi Marsan, Dawn Spragg, Lewis Spencer, Sam Phillips, Sarah Beckett, Brett Fancy, Natasha Joseph, Mike Burnside, Jamie Martin
He may have been dead for over thirty years, but Roald Dahl is still regarded as one of the most widely read and respected children’s authors. Children who are growing up now also enjoy much loved books such as ‘Matilda’, ‘The witches’ and of course ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’. The stories are timeless and stimulate the imagination of children with their unique, ‘grumorous’ tone. No wonder that filmmakers are responding to this, for example with the remake of ‘The Witches’ (2020), and that no fewer than four major projects are currently in production (an origin story about Willy Wonka with Timothée Chalamet and Olivia Colman, a film adaptation of the musical ‘Mathilda’ with Emma Thompson as Miss Bulstrunk, an idiosyncratic film adaptation of the collection ‘The wonderful story of Hendrik Meier’ by Wes Anderson, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley in the lead roles and a miniseries for TV of ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’). Not everyone knows that Dahl might never have been able to write most of those great stories had it not been for some great tragedy in his life. But this is explored in more detail in the film ‘To Olivia’ (2021) by director John Hay.
Hay and his fellow screenwriter David Logan based themselves on Stephen Michael Shearer’s book ‘An Unquiet Life’; not a biography of Dahl but of Patricia Neal, the Hollywood actress with whom he was married for thirty years and had five children. When we meet them, we write the period 1961-1962, both spouses are at an impasse in their artistic career. Roald (Hugh Bonneville with prosthetic nose) just released ‘James and the Giant Peach’, but that book is in danger of flopping and Patricia (Keeley Hawes)’s early acting success dates back to a decade. Though they live in an idyllic spot in the British countryside with their three young children Olivia (Darcey Ewart), Tessa (Isabella Jonsson) and baby Theo (Alfie and Tommy James Hardy), financial worries pile up. But then disaster strikes: seven-year-old Olivia falls seriously ill and dies in hospital not long after. Her death drives a wedge in the family: while Patricia stifles her intense grief and tries to be there for her two other children, Roald locks himself in his garden shed, pours himself with booze, diligently throwing himself into his next book. – something with a chocolate factory – so as not to have to face his grief.
It is distressing to see how Roald, after the death of Olivia, seems to have completely forgotten about his other children. Theo is still too small, so five-year-old Tessa in particular is the victim of his blunt rejection. While she too is sad and misses her sister. The very young Isabella Jonsson plays her part very convincingly; it breaks your heart when you see Roald tuck her doll away because he’s convinced it belonged to Olivia and he doesn’t want to face her death again. It’s too painful for him. But somehow you also understand his behavior: can you imagine a greater loss than a parent who loses his child? ‘To Olivia’ neatly ticks off the various stages of loss and grief, while highlighting some crucial events that shaped Dahl and Neal. For example, the scene in which they seek comfort from the Archbishop of Canterbury (Geoffrey Palmers in his very last role), where Roald sees his skepticism about the faith confirmed once again. But eventually there is also hope on the horizon: Patricia is personally asked by producer Marty Ritt (Conleth Hill from “Game of Thrones”) for the role of Alma in ‘Hud’ (1963), but after all these years she finds it exciting to have to audition again. And then also with a blunt Paul Newman (Sam Heughan). What we now know is that that film would mark Neal’s comeback and even land her an Oscar. Dahl, meanwhile, is steadily writing his new book; ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’ would mean his definitive breakthrough. This film shows once again that the most beautiful arts arise from mourning and loss.
‘To Olivia’ has a strong cast, in which Hawes and the young Jonsson in particular know how to distinguish themselves. The fact that it is Neal who has to get the family back on track, while she would probably have preferred to devote herself completely to her work as her husband does, gives the film an interesting approach from the point of view of women’s emancipation. That her story comes out slightly better than Dahl’s, probably has to do with the fact that ‘To Olivia’ is based on her biography and not his. The production is very solid, there is nothing to argue with. It’s a pity that the film seems rather docile and standard; of course you feel the emotions, but it all remains quite hypothermic. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt to occasionally show how torn Dahl and Neal are. Also, more could have been done with the tone of the story. Dahl’s work is such an enormous source of inspiration, just throwing up made-up words and ideas that would later return in his books is not enough. That touch of humor, absurdity or idiosyncrasy that characterizes Dahl’s work would have given this film just a little more color and ‘gobble funk’.