At the movies, it's open season on literary figures. In Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, we got an earful of cult heroine Dorothy Parker's mordant one-liners, which was to be expected, and an eyeful of her alcoholic self-pity, which was not. Tom & Viv is an even rougher piece of business in which T.S. Eliot, the poetic colossus, gets raked over the coals for shipping his manic-depressive wife off to an asylum, where she spent the remaining eleven years of her life alone and abandoned.
But that's only the final shot playwright Michael Hastings and director Brian Gilbert fire at the creator of The Waste Land. In the person of Willem Dafoe, who really looks like one of the poet's Hollow Men, the Eliot we meet here is precisely the kind of forbidding, distant intellectual that college sophomores often imagine when faced with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in English class. A Midwesterner (St. Louis) who yearned to be something else, Eliot moved to England after graduating from college and affected not only British literary manners but British reserve in his private life. He converted to the Church of England in the Twenties, became a British subject in 1927 and enslaved himself to decorum throughout.
The film doesn't say so, but Eliot once declared himself "an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics." Apparently, he was also a cold fish in human relations.
In the film, which fails to convince us the Eliots gave a damn about each other, we watch good old "Tom" sweep aside the early signs of trouble in his marriage to the former Vivienne Haigh-Wood as if they don't exist, but when she becomes too much of an embarrassment by disrupting dinner parties and waving a knife at novelist Virginia Woolf, he simply gets rid of her.
That's not all. The film, like Hastings's 1984 play, also suggests that it was the mad but brilliant Viv who wrote some of Eliot's best lines--a claim biographers and literary detectives are hotly disputing. Ezra Pound, Eliot's main mentor, doesn't even make an appearance.
Meanwhile, the film's intermittent fascinations come less from Dafoe than from Miranda Richardson. As the troubled Viv, Richardson paints a strong portrait of a high-spirited nonconformist who contrasts sharply with her buttoned-up husband--a man who spent eight years working in a London bank while turning himself into the English-speaking world's most renowned poet. We also see a woman whose physical and psychological maladies baffle the questionable science of her day. Freud and Jung have apparently not found their way to London (or to the Eliots), and in time, one sniffy British practitioner diagnoses her problem as "moral insanity."
That, of course, more aptly describes the view of the world expressed in Eliot's poetry, with its dark visions of spiritual emptiness. But we get so little sense of his work from the film that he might as well be a greengrocer or a bartender. The filmmakers are much busier trying to put flesh and blood on the somber Tom and showing sympathy for the disordered Viv, whose room-wrecking rages and paranoiac frenzies make Zelda Fitzgerald seem like a Girl Scout by comparison. As far as we know, not even Zelda melted down a hundred chocolate bars on the stove, then poured the whole mess through her indifferent husband's mail slot, just to get his attention.
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Director Brian Gilbert, English through and through, has shot the film in the restrained Masterpiece Theater/Merchant-Ivory style, and there's not much to argue with in that. No one expects T.S. Eliot to break into the Charleston. His best friend, "Bertie," aka philosopher Bertrand Russell, is the film's closest thing to a fun-loving guy (he's even got the hots for crazy Viv), but he doesn't exactly sling whiskey bottles around the room. All the mayhem in this rather stiff, formal film is left to Richardson's Viv--and even that looks pretty decorous and stiff-upper-lip.
The supporting players all achieve the high standard we've come to expect from the best British character actors. Newcomer Tim Dutton is superb as Viv's good-hearted but empty-headed brother Maurice, and Rosemary Harris shines as her mother, a proud aristocrat who appreciates her new son-in-law's early devotion to her daughter and understands Viv's dark traumas like no one else.
In Alan Rudolph's film about Dorothy Parker, we got a portrait of a relatively minor writer of the 1920s squandering her career on booze and thwarted love. In Tom & Viv, we see a major writer of the twentieth century--arguably the major writer--commit betrayal after betrayal while continuing to profess his love. "Poetry is an escape from emotion," the artificial Englishman says, one of the film's few insights into his actual aesthetics. For Eliot, England was also an escape, and when things got rough in his dysfunctional marriage, he escaped from that, too. His wife died, alone, in 1947; the following year he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Until recently, Eliot was held in such awe by scholars that his personal life was virtually off-limits. But a new wave of studies, and this film, knock him off his high perch. It could have been worse. At least one of the poet's chief biographers, Lyndall Gordon, has castigated the filmmakers for omitting a crucial element in Eliot's shoddy treatment of his wife--namely, the presence of another woman. But that might have made things even messier, dramatically speaking, and if there's anything that fastidious old Tom abhorred, it was a mess.