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‘Tom & Viv’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 17, 1995

"Tom & Viv," Brian Gilbert's stolidly literate new film about the relationship between T.S. Eliot and his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, is a "Masterpiece Theatre"-style portrait of a literary marriage. But because of the particularly gruesome nature of this union, it plays more like a horror movie than a domestic drama -- a sort of "Interview With the Vampire" for the Bloomsbury set.

The film, based on Michael Hastings's play, begins in 1915 at Oxford, where a young Tom Eliot (Willem Dafoe) is attempting to shed his American skin and become "more English than the English," in the words of one character. By this point, the transformation is already pretty far along. England, he has decided, is the perfect place for him to cultivate the mundane, commonplace life necessary for his poetry to blossom. And then there is Vivienne (Miranda Richardson) -- a vivacious, free-spirited, aristocratic woman whose presence seems to bring out the mushy romantic in him. "I love you," he says. "More than life itself. I'd do anything for you."

Eager to tie the knot, the lovers elope, and immediately the troubles begin. We have been given a hint of what is to come during a conversation Tom has with Vivienne's brother, Maurice (Tim Dutton), who inquires whether there is anything "beastly" between him and his sister. Missing the point entirely, Tom assures Maurice that he is in perfect health. Of course, it is Viv's health that Maurice is worried about, and after the newlyweds' first -- and perhaps only -- attempt to consummate their marriage, Tom understands why. Viv, it turns out, suffers perpetually from severe "female troubles" -- later diagnosed as a hormonal imbalance -- that not only make sex difficult but also affect her mental stability.

Tom's reaction to his wife's affliction doesn't exactly cover the great poet with glory. Repulsed and disgusted, he immediately heads for the beach to brood and allow the surf to play about his ankles. But at this point the movie seems to want us to see Tom as a victim; after all, Viv rushed him into this marriage without telling him about her illness, leaving the suggestion that she married him not for love but to hitch her wagon to a rising literary star.

Yet if Viv is a parasite feeding on her husband's genius, Tom begins to come across as something of a bloodsucker too, using his marriage to secure his position on the top rung of British society. As Eliot, Dafoe certainly looks the part of a vampire. Scott Fitzgerald once described the poet to critic Edmund Wilson as looking "very broken and sad and shrunk inside," and Dafoe embodies that description to perfection. He is very skillful at impersonating the poet's droning, haunted voice as well. However, apart from these feats of mimicry, there doesn't seem to be much in the character for the actor to grab hold of. As a result, his performance seems enervated and dry, as if he has embraced his character's desire for self-negation with so much vigor that he virtually disappears.

Richardson, on the other hand, plays Viv as if she were a harpy let loose on polite society. Her performance -- which has earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress -- is fussy and mannered yet also moving; she does seem, at times, possessed by forces beyond her control.

In fact, losing control may have been Viv's ultimate sin. Certainly, neither her husband nor her parents (played with formidable reserve by Philip Locke and Rosemary Harris, a Best Supporting Actress nominee) could ever be found guilty of such a crime. And Hastings (and Adrian Hodges, who helped adapt his play for the screen) suggests that Vivienne's eventual commitment to an insane asylum was brought about largely because she had offended her class.

But who needs another movie detailing the stuffiness of the British upper class? It's unclear, really, what Hastings is getting at here. Does he mean to suggest that Eliot helped Maurice arrange for Viv's detention in a mental hospital because she would damage his reputation by claiming to be the "real" author of his work? (Recent letters suggest that Eliot knew about his wife's hospitalization only after the fact.) Or that after his reputation and position were secure he no longer had any use for her and simply left her to rot with the other crazies?

Though the filmmakers present ample evidence of Viv's antisocial behavior -- at one point she pulls a rubber knife on Virginia Woolf in order to steal her taxi -- they never really manage to get into Tom's mind to the extent that his motives become clear. "Tom & Viv" is a handsome, literate film in the Merchant-Ivory mode, but there's a hole right at the center of it -- right where the poet himself should be.

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