To Olivia, 2021.
Directed by John Hay.
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Keeley Hawes, Sam Heughan, Conleth Hill, Isabella Jonsson, Darcey Ewart and Bodhi Marsan.
Roald Dahl and his wife – actor Patricia Neal – struggle to reinvigorate their creative careers following the death of their eldest daughter.
Roald Dahl is one of the most beloved children’s authors of all time and the characters he created inspire other media at an incredible rate. Last year brought a new adaptation of The Witches, while the long-running Matilda musical is soon heading to the big screen and Netflix is working on a tonne of new Dahl projects. His creations are timeless, but what of the author himself? Veteran TV director John Hay makes the jump to movies with To Olivia, which follows one of the more difficult years in Dahl’s life.
The film begins with the Dahl family ensconced within their Buckinghamshire home. Roald (Hugh Bonneville) has recently published James and the Giant Peach and is currently working on a fantastical tale set at a chocolate factory. Cue at least a half-dozen excruciating winks and nudges about how gobstoppers “never last long enough” and meetings with greedy kids called “Augustus”. Dahl and wife Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes) are plunged into grief when their seven-year-old daughter Olivia passes away after contracting encephalitis caused by measles.
There’s certainly something extra poignant about To Olivia in the wake of 2020, telling as it does a story about immense and exciting creativity being born from the ashes of grief. Hay’s film, thoughtfully scripted by the director and co-writer David Logan, unpicks the fragments of a shattered family and, despite its gentle biopic trappings, doesn’t shy away from the pressures of grief upon a marriage, and indeed on Dahl’s relationship with his other children. Isabella Jonsson is particularly good as Tessa, who bristles with anger at her belief she can never live up to the way her father felt about Olivia.
Bonneville does a solid job of navigating the contradictions of Dahl. He sparks with anger in the more tense scenes, but also bursts with avuncular charm when the occasion calls for it. At times, his cosy jumpers and twinkling warmth are almost similar in tone to the work of Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, and that’s never an unpleasant thing to be reminded about. Hawes, meanwhile, is excellent as a between-roles Neal, though her part is baffling underwritten considering the fact the source material is not a biography of Dahl, but one of Neal. She spends most of the second half of the movie acting against a god-awful green screen version of 1960s LA.
But it’s the first half of the film which really works, sketching out the familial bliss of the Dahl’s rural escape and then forcing grief into it with savage energy. The palette of Graham Frake’s sunny cinematography noticeably darkens when tragedy strikes and, though some visual symbolism involving birds lands with as much thud as the Dahl references, there’s an emotional truth to the storytelling which is definitely worth appreciating. Debbie Wiseman’s score delivers an evocative, poignant accompaniment to the opening credits, but sadly serves as a clunky and heavy-handed emotional signpost for much of the narrative.
Anyone hoping for a film uncovering the more troubling elements of Dahl – his love of booze never figures as much as it seems likely to early on, and there’s no mention of his abhorrent antisemitic views – will be disappointed by To Olivia. But it’s an intriguing and poignant portrait of grief, even if it does feel rather lacking in the sharp edges that could’ve made it truly memorable. It’s not the definitive Dahl biopic many may have expected, but this was always something more focused – and it does that job well, if unspectacularly.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.