Hugh Bonneville portrays famed author Roald Dahl opposite Keeley Hawes as American actress Patricia Neal in this biographical drama.
Most people will be aware of the name Roald Dahl and his famous books - such as Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - but may not know much about his life and the tragedy that struck his family in 1962.
To Olivia, directed by John Hay, focuses on the tumultuous marriage between the British author (played by Hugh Bonneville) and his American actress wife Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes) and their life in the English countryside with their children Olivia (Darcey Ewart), Tessa (Isabella Jonsson), and baby Theo.
Their world is turned upside down in 1962 when Olivia dies at the age of seven from encephalitis caused by measles, and they have very different ways of coping with the loss, with Dahl packing up Olivia’s belongings and refusing to say her name - or let anyone else talk about her - and being frosty towards his other children.
It sounds like To Olivia is going to be a major tearjerker but it's strangely not. This could be because Olivia’s death takes place very early on in the film when you haven’t got to know her or her parents very well or because the film never really digs beneath the surface or gets under the skin of the characters.
You know they’re grieving, they act like they’re grieving, but you don’t feel it.
This could also be down to Dahl being a cantankerous, moody, unhelpful and mostly likely alcoholic husband and father, so you just feel sorry for Neal and don’t blame her for flying to Hollywood with the kids to have a break from home and make a movie.
From there, their differences seem to be resolved far too quickly.
Olivia’s death has a positive impact on Neal as she’s able to access more emotions and play more complex characters, leading her to win the Best Actress Oscar for Hud, while Dahl starts to accept Tessa’s suggestions about his book (something previously reserved for his favourite, Olivia) and with her help, he finishes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It all just seems too neat and tidy.
Bonneville didn't totally convince as Dahl - he didn't look much like him and wasn't always believable playing an often mean and selfish person.
The audience is most likely to emotionally connect with Hawes as Neal as she is more kind and compassionate, although Hawes’ American accent was inconsistent and didn’t feel natural.
Jonsson was adorable as Tessa, who wants a close relationship with her father as Olivia had, and Sam Heughan makes a small but significant appearance as Neal’s Hud co-star Paul Newman, who doesn’t suffer any fools and doesn’t care about her tragedy, he just wants to make sure she's ready to play the part.
It does excel in other aspects though. The fantastic animated visuals during the opening credits deserve a mention as they tell the story of Dahl and Neal’s lives from childhood to 1962 in a clever montage, as well as Debbie Wiseman’s beautiful score, which was more effective in evoking an emotional response than the actors or the storytelling.
To Olivia is an interesting yet flawed study of grief and how people deal with loss differently. It could have done with being a little bit longer, to take its time to tell the story and make the audience connect with it emotionally.
On Sky Cinema from Friday 19th February.
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