Tom and Viv
United Kingdom, 1994
PG-13 (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Willem Dafoe, Miranda Richardson, Rosemary Harris, Tim Dutton, Nickolas Grace
Michael Hastings and Adrian Hodges based on the play by Michael Hastings
Tom and Viv is culture. From the opening credits to the closing caption, this is never in doubt. Not designed for mass consumption, the examination of T.S. Eliot's tragic first marriage has all the marks of a "typical" British art film (or an extended Masterpiece Theater episode): it's wonderfully acted (with one exception), nicely photographed, dryly scripted, and trudges along with the pace of a slug.
The film purports to chronicle the thirty-plus year marriage of T.S. Eliot (Willem Dafoe) and Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot (Miranda Richardson). Beginning with their 1915 courtship, when both were in their twenties, Tom and Viv spans decades, finally coming to an unnecessarily drawn-out conclusion around the time of the second World War. Both Dafoe and Richardson have some difficulty giving credible performances when their characters are young. Richardson improves greatly as Vivienne ages. Sadly, the same can't be said for Dafoe.
Tom and Viv's courtship is a whirlwind affair, and the pair has eloped before Tom learns his wife's "dark secret." She is the victim of a misdiagnosed hormonal imbalance which causes wild mood swings. The affliction's supposed treatment -- which includes massive doses of alcohol and morphine-based medications -- serves only to further destabilize Vivienne. Nevertheless, despite his obvious distress, Tom sticks by his wife although few aspects of their union could be considered anything less than disastrous.
Tom and Viv doesn't try very hard to make an emotional impact. Oh, there are moments when some humanity breaks through the production's icy crust, but the film largely chooses to stand on intellectual grounds. T.S. Eliot, as clinically portrayed by Dafoe, comes across as a cold fish -- all mind and no heart. When circumstances at last drive him to bleat, "I crave companionship, yet I am completely alone," there are few in the audience who will spare him more than an obligatory moment of sympathy. Actors such as Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins have created memorable characters out of repressed personalities. The same cannot be said of Dafoe. Tom is never more than a generic poet, and the internal mechanisms of his greatness remain hidden.
Whatever emotional response we have is reserved for Vivienne -- and that's largely the result of Miranda Richardson's performance (for which she received an Oscar nomination). She shines in this role, regardless of whether she's throwing a tantrum or begging Tom never to leave her. Had this film been a little more about Viv, with less emphasis on her partner, Tom and Viv would likely have seemed less stagnant.
There are times when the melodrama of Tom and Viv becomes too much, but the film's most serious flaw is its pacing -- it drags, especially during the last half-hour. While there's an admitted fascination in observing the disintegration of a once-promising union, especially with a performance like Richardson's in the foreground, Tom and Viv would have been more moving had the filmmakers done some judicious editing.