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Film: To Olivia

22 July 2022

Stephen Brown views a film about the Dahls

Sky Cinema

Geoffrey Palmer as Archbishop Fisher, Hugh Bonneville as Roald Dahl, and Keeley Hawes as Patricia Neal in To Olivia

Geoffrey Palmer as Archbishop Fisher, Hugh Bonneville as Roald Dahl, and Keeley Hawes as Patricia Neal in To Olivia

SKY CINEMA’s To Olivia (Cert. 12), available on streaming services, covers a period (1961-64) in the 30-year marriage of the author Roald Dahl to the American star Patricia Neal. Alarm bells start ringing, though, when this version portrays their family struggling financially. He was at that time writing screenplays for Hitchcock’s television programmes, and she made several films.

Hugh Bonneville skilfully captures the child-man Dahl was, forever relating outlandish situations and characters to Olivia (Darcey Ewart), eldest of their three children. In their Buckinghamshire garden, she keeps parrots, all named after angels. Keeley Hawes makes a good fist of Neal, displaying the woman’s tenderness, without losing sight of despair at her husband’s behaviour, clownish one moment, cantankerous the next.

Utter darkness befalls them when seven-year old Olivia contracts measles and dies of encephalitis. Neal, kneeling by the hospital bed, prays fervently. Dahl remains impassive. Regarding Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages-of-grief model, he fluctuates between denial (never mentioning Olivia) and anger (destroying his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory manuscript).

As the marriage deteriorates, the couple seek help from Dahl’s old headmaster, Geoffrey Fisher. He, now Archbishop of Canterbury (Geoffrey Palmer), is uncompromising. When his former pupil reminds the prelate that he used to say that God could be a right old sod at times, this is rebutted. He assures them that Olivia will be blissfully happy in the Kingdom of our Lord. When questioned about her love of animals, Fisher categorically asserts (despite powerful theological arguments to the contrary) their exclusion from paradise. Dahl explodes. How then can she be happy, if Rowley, her beloved dog, is absent? We know from elsewhere that this conversation was a final straw in the writer’s belief in God.

The Church doesn’t fare that well in the film. The vicar, after an unlikely funeral (where the grave is immediately piled high with earth), tries comforting Neal as if he knew the family well, and yet mispronounces Dahl’s name.

The characters handle grief differently. It might have been better if the movie either had entirely stuck to established facts about the Dahls or presented us with a fictional artistic couple experiencing tragedy. To Olivia suggests that it was through mining their inner aesthetic resources that the family reunited. Neal returns to Hollywood, starring opposite Paul Newman (Sam Heughan, uncannily resembling him) in Hud, arguing that her emotional turmoil has provided the necessary insights into how her role needs playing. As a result, she wins an Oscar.

Dahl himself is set free, enabling his writing and life to flourish, when, in Isabella Jonsson’s stand-out performance as the daughter Tessa, she releases the caged “angels”. The film thereby contrives a Dahl-like happy ending. We hear nothing, for instance, of allegations of life-long bigotry against women, Jews, and other races, nor of subsequent marital problems.

Instead, we are left with a closing credit that should give anti-vaxxers food for thought. Bonneville, in a voiceover, echoes the film’s departures from the truth: “Perhaps there’s a part of me that became a storyteller so I could choose what happens next because, of course, real life doesn’t let you do that.”

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