To Olivia

Hugh Bonneville and Darcey Ewart in To Olivia. Image courtesy Icon Film


M, 94 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s a promising start to this new film that visits the life of the famous children’s author, Roald Dahl. A tall, imposing figure enters a hall and strides across the floor through a crowd of children before stopping in front of a bowl of peaches. He has just arrived to deliver a reading from his new book James and the Giant Peach while one of his most beloved books, The BFG, is still to come.

Dahl dedicated his books to all his children, with both James and the Giant Peach and The BFG dedicated to his daughter, Olivia.

First impressions always count, of course. The other first impression is when Dahl claps eyes on his future wife, a famous Hollywood actress, while accepting a wager that he wouldn’t leave the building with her on his arm. He does, wins the bet, and the rest is history.

The marriage between Roald Dahl, played here by Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), and Patricia Neal, an American played by Keeley Hawes (BBC series Spooks, and Bodyguard, would last for 30 years and they would have five children. But their first meeting was nothing like that. They met at a society dinner party in New York.

A useful introduction to two big, confident characters who at first seem up for anything

While the screenplay, a collaboration between the director John Hay and David Logan, may have been a bit loose with the facts, the early scenes in To Olivia are a useful introduction to these two big characters, who are both very attractive, confident individuals who seemed to be up for anything.

The film is set in the early 1960s, by which time the couple already had two little daughters and a son. They have moved to Buckinghamshire for a quiet, country life to bring up their young family, and it was an arrangement that made sense for these two creatives with fluctuating careers, feeling mildly desperate about how the bills would be paid.

The country house was a haven for the young family, and it allowed Dahl’s imagination to run riot as he sat in isolation in a writing shed out the back. Although this family home is still standing, and marked as a place of historical significance, the shoot didn’t take place there, at Gipsy House, Buckinghamshire. It took place in Surrey.

Dahl loved to walk to the local sweetshop in the Buckinghamshire village near where they lived with his favourite daughter, Olivia (Darcey Ewart) and keep her supplied with gobstoppers and scrumdiddlyumptious chocolate. As inventive wordplay creeps into the script, the irreverent, and wickedly funny world that the author Dahl created seems much of the time at arm’s length, however. It’s because the film takes place during the period when the couple were dealing with tragedy. Olivia died of a deadly infection after she contracted measles.

The film gives the distinct impression that the arrangements were more difficult for Neal who is often seen wrangling the children while chain-smoking and waiting the call from Hollywood. It’s no surprise to see then, in a screenplay that is sourced from a biography of Neal by Stephen Michael Shearer, that life with Dahl was at times difficult.

An insistent score underlining the positive plot points swamps delicate moments of uplift

Filmgoers enticed to a film about an author and his actress wife in the expectation of hearing more about creative genius at work may be taken aback by the emphasis on the couple’s marital issues. Some of the time we watch a brawl, not unlike the startling, raw scenes between Burton and Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I wondered whether at some point, a decision was made that To Olivia was a bit too dark. There is an insistent score underlining the positive plot points that gets quite annoying, swamping the delicate moments of uplift. The low ceilings and cramping interior spaces of the mise-en-scene are also rather heavy handed. Moments that even the scene where Dahl gives Neal her carrot Oscar, to symbolise the real best actress award she had just won for her role as a housekeeper in Hud, opposite Paul Newman, cannot quite overwhelm.

And yet, it is intriguing that the timeframe of the film is in the lead up to the release of Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that many consider his best work, as well as the Neal’s Oscar. The couple were travelling in a weird kind of tandem, after all.

First published in the Canberra Times on 20 May 2022. Jane reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes