Beginning in 1961, we join Hugh Bonneville’s Roald Dahl and his Hollywood actress wife Patricia Neal (played by Keeley Hawes), who’ve moved to the country in England to raise their young family.
Based on Stephen Michael Shearer’s biography about Neal, called An Unquiet Life, To Olivia endeavours to tell us the story of Dahl and Neal’s life after their young daughter, Olivia, tragically dies from measles, in a pre-vaccination world. However, while the film has moments of connection, and despite a genuinely unimaginable loss, it never quite settles on its message and the result is a series of distant scenes with Dahl and Neal where we’re expected to recognise the depths of their struggle, even though we don’t really know much about them beyond their fame.
To Olivia starts with an animated, opening credit sequence showing us the story of how Dahl and Neal met, through a clever, colourful series of vignettes, scored with smartness and intrigue and setting us up for what’s to follow. This offers a brief insight into how their marriage came to be, but we join them in a strange place where, even before the tragic death of their daughter, they’ve clearly drifted apart. Sometimes they argue and seem to hate each other, but then they instantly flip into being in love. Whether their relationship was always like this, it’s not clear, but the chemistry is surface level and doesn’t really indicate either way.
Much like Bohemian Rhapsody poorly filtered down the life of Freddie for a clichéd retelling, yet Rocketman celebrated the ups and down of Elton without fear, To Olivia has a few encounters of being a little too ‘on the nose’ for Dahl’s development of his stories. While it’s exciting to hear pieces of ideas, and see how they were inspired by his family, in the early stages these things feel a little forced into the narrative. An early scene where Roald tells stories to a community hall of kids is charming, and we get a spark of reality between him and Neal, but this is one of just a few high peaks.
To Olivia is purposefully (and impressively by Debbie Wiseman) scored with an emotional punch, bringing life to a world of beige, black and white surroundings. We spend our time in naturally lit, open rooms and spaces, which extends another place in the middle of detachment and connection. I’d think parents would connect to the emotively soaring pieces which trickle through, but a story should accompany the score with the same level of sentiment, whereas here it’s used to push the feeling, rather than reflect it.
A big part of the film is Roald Dahl’s drinking, plus the psychological issues with his past and even accepting his own writing talent – a classic creative problem, trust me. An obvious negative character trait and one that Neal’s actress doesn’t like, but she’s also off somewhere figuratively as they continue their estranged setup. To Olivia attempts to discuss how people deal with depression, self-doubt and grief but instead revels a lot in of ‘oh…’ conversations which result in little conclusion, and a result that feels a little daytime TV drama which lacks in depth. Both Bonneville and Hawes are perfectly acceptable in their performances, it’s fair and natural in that respect, yet a little empty beyond that. All the young actors are solid in their performances as well. You also get to see Geoffrey Palmer, in his final film role, bringing an understand to their relationship (as they don’t agree with what he’s saying) but this is one of those few sparks along the way.
For me, the strongest part is the final third. This is when Neal takes a role in Hollywood (and I believe Outlander viewers will enjoy Sam Heughan‘s cameo as Paul Newman) and Dahl is left to sort himself, and his writing, out. It relaxes at this point, as do the characters, and we get to individually learn a lot more about their values. My key issue with the rest of the film is that the writers assume we know everything about these two people because of who they are, rather than giving the building blocks of understanding, which arrive too late.
Just because you’ve got good actors involved, it doesn’t always mean what follows will be satisfying, and To Olivia struggles in terms of finding the story it wants to tell, and the characters it wants you to focus on. If anything, they miss an important story in relation to vaccination, considering Dahl’s incredible work on championing its vital need, and the result is a lukewarm TV drama that never quite delves into the desperate grief of losing a child, or the mental health struggles of one of its lead characters. Overall, it’s disappointing and somewhat underwhelming for all its promise.