To Olivia (2021)
Reflecting on the tragedies that had been visited upon her family, Patricia Neal once commented that she felt like Roald Dahl and her were living through the Book of Job. Their son Theo endured multiple operations after being struck by a taxi and their eldest child Olivia had recently died from a rare case of measles-induced encephalitis. Though this biopic barley touches upon Theo’s brush with death, confining the brain-damaged child to a crib with little explanation, it wallows in the grief stemming from Olivia’s demise.
It all starts off cheerily enough. A delightful animated title sequence precedes Roald Dahl giving a Wonka-like entrance before wagering some sap that he can woo Patricia Neal. Amused by their childish ruse, the married couple happily return home to Gipsy House where Roald bounces ideas off Olivia for his current book about a chocolate factory. However, cracks soon appear in this idyllic setting as the perpetually tipsy Dahl and Neal argue about overdue bills, poor book sales and past affairs. Despite stories of fairies parading on rabbits and hopes for a longer lasting gobstopper, the mood of the film is decidedly dour even before the sudden death of Olivia.
Afterwards, not surprisingly, To Olivia becomes even more morose. Dahl’s mourning becomes all-consuming, rendering him almost catatonic. Neal’s increasing frustration with her husband’s behaviour leads to the appearance that the married couple are performing their own version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yet unlike George and Martha, Roald and Pat actually do have children. The aforementioned Theo all but disappears and surviving daughter Tessa is left to sustain herself on what little affection her grief-stricken parents can muster. Even an uplifting ending, in which both Dahl and Neal reach the pinnacle of their respective careers, fails to lift this biopic out of its melancholy.
Bonneville and Hawes are both fine in their roles, and Sam Heughan gives a good impression of Paul Newman, even if he does seem to have already assumed the character of Hud, greeting the news of Neal’s misfortune with a sympathetic “Shit Happens!”. It most certainly does, for a year after the events depicted in To Olivia, Patricia Neal suffered three massive strokes. This chapter of her personal Book of Job was dramatised in the biopic The Patricia Neal Story: An Act of Love.
as Roald Dahl
as Patricia Neal
as Martin Ritt
as Edith Head
Hud had completed filming three months before Olivia’s death.
Apart from a rehearsal of the bus station scene from Hud, there are no scene recreations in this biopic.