Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson play T.S. Eliot and his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, in a carefully crafted biopic that presents Mrs. Eliot as a victim of sexism.
The film opens (and closes) with narration by Viv's brother, Maurice (Tim Dutton), who introduced Viv to Tom in 1915 at Oxford, where Tom was studying under Bertrand Russell (Nickolas Grace). After a brief, bucolic courtship, they elope; Tom is still unaware of Viv's "women's problems"--a
euphemism for (then untreatable) hormonal imbalances causing menstrual difficulties and mood swings. Their honeymoon is marred by sexual problems, and complicated by a psychotic incident when Viv mixes her medications (alcohol and ether) after Tom leaves for a walk on the beach. Tom is quickly
reconciled to the Haigh-Woods, particularly Mum (Rosemary Harris), who likes him because he is "discreet." Tom becomes a banker at Lloyd's. With Viv editing his work, he begins to find success as a poet, but their relationship dissolves. He is constantly told by doctors that her "condition" is
hopeless and will only deteriorate; she has embarrassing outbursts, particularly among the Bloomsbury elite--no less than Virginia Woolf (Joanna McCallum) cautions Tom that she could prove to be his undoing.
After her father dies, Viv is devastated to learn that her portion of the estate has been placed in a trust administered by Tom and Maurice, making her totally dependent on Tom; furious, she rages against Tom for abandoning her, regaling her family with the intimate details of their
estrangement. Tom is desolate, telling his bishop that he loves his wife and craves companionship, but feels utterly alone. Doctors now advise Tom that Viv is suffering from a "febrile disease of the mind," and encourage him to have her committed. In 1932, he takes a chair in poetry at Harvard.
Soon after, Viv causes a car wreck, and he takes action to have her declared insane, aided by Maurice, who worries that Viv is a danger to herself. Viv spends more than a decade in generously appointed sanitariums, but it is not until the closing years of the war that American doctors properly
diagnose her hormonal imbalance. By then, she has accommodated herself to her solitude, but remains delusional in her devotion to Tom, strenuously rebuffing the suggestion that he might have acted villainously by having her committed and taking ownership of her estate. When Maurice returns from
Africa after the war, he realizes the magnitude of her loss.
This is a film that wears its agenda unapologetically: Viv's "disease" was defined by law as "moral insanity"--an inability to conform to social standards peculiar to intelligent young women--and women so afflicted were stripped of all civil rights, including the right of appeal. Never stooping
to SNAKE PIT scare tactics, the film is all the more chilling for its matter-of-factness and superficial civility. The attitude of condescension that surrounds Viv--well-meaning men not wanting to "bother" women about financial or medical "details"--rings true. Tom is ambiguously drawn: he
earnestly loves his wife, but is unable to comprehend or respond to her needs for inclusion and contact. His most telling moment is his assertion that poetry is not an expression of emotion, but rather an escape from it.
Richardson is outstanding in a complex role, never hitting a false note, and Dafoe, one of the most versatile actors in film, is impeccable. The supporting cast is able, although Harris shines, particularly in the scene late in the film where Rose denounces Tom's aspirations and
responsibilities. Director Brian Gilbert, with production designer Jamie Leonard, achieves the requisite Masterpiece Theatre glow. The screenplay, based on Michael Hastings's stage play, is literate and frequently witty; moments of unintentional camp (perhaps unavoidable in straightforward
biopics) are surprisingly few. (Mild profanity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: R
- Review: Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson play T.S. Eliot and his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, in a carefully crafted biopic that presents Mrs. Eliot as a victim of sexism. The film opens (and closes) with narration by Viv's brother, Maurice (Tim Dutton), who… (more)