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'Tom & Viv': the life of an artist, the heart of a poet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

T. S. Eliot is best remembered for writing "The Waste Land" and declaring that poetry should be impersonal. "Tom & Viv," casting him in an unsparing revisionist light, argues that "The Waste Land" was a metaphor for his first marriage and that in eventually fleeing it, he fled some harrowingly painful emotions and social mortifications that nevertheless deepened his poetry.

Spotlighting the discrepancy between what an artist says and what an artist does, the film -- now playing at the Senator -- champions Eliot's first wife, Viv, finding that Eliot's poetry was anything but impersonal, that it in fact took on a richness it wouldn't have had if they never had met.

Eliot is more sinner than sinned against in this film based on Michael Hastings' play. Toward the end, we see Willem Dafoe's Eliot and his mentor, Bertrand Russell, descend in a BBC elevator. It is not a casual shot, nor is its placement casual.

By that point, Eliot has dropped in our estimation while Viv, unforgettably given voice by Miranda Richardson, emerges as a much-abused victim of male betrayals -- chiefly Eliot's. The former Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who died in 1947, the year before Eliot won the Nobel Prize, spent the last part of her life confined in an asylum under England's Lunacy Act, an instrument often used to mothball unwanted relatives. During the 10 years preceding her death, he never visited or wrote.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, it may not have been coldness or callousness that kept Eliot away, but a will to distance himself from pain. Viv's crime, or at least the reason given for her confinement, was "moral insanity." In fact, she suffered from a gynecological disorder that could have been cured with hormones.

As it was, she was afflicted with haywire menstrual periods and trapped in cycles of manic-depressive behavior worsened by morphine and alcohol-based drugs prescribed by doctors. Her post-menopausal years put an end to her physiological troubles -- although not to her confinement. If you thought the British medical establishment came off badly in "The Madness of King George" -- and it does -- it's worse here.

At various points, Viv is diagnosed as having "intestinal catarrh" and "a febrile disease of the mind." Clearly, she's doomed by the ignorance and prudery of the paternalistic society surrounding her. Also, it soon becomes clear, she made an unfortunate choice of marriage partners. Anglophile Eliot, born in St. Louis, Mo., wants into the stuffy, defined, hierarchal world that she wants out of.

After a rush of ardor at Oxford and a hurried courtship, a disastrous honeymoon sets the pattern for their marital horror story. In the pre-fame days, she's his inspiration, helpmate, typist and -- as her notes in the margins of his writing make clear -- editor.

But she can't handle the slights of the Bloomsbury set that lionize him and exclude her. She abuses her medications, behaves erratically, drinks too much and climaxes her literary career by waving a knife at Virginia Woolf.

Ms. Richardson's Viv has most of the scenes here, but she's too good an actress to merely allow them to become bravura display pieces. At her most manic, there's always a fragility and desperation in her Viv. We also never lose sight of the vivaciousness that attracted the recessive Eliot, and although it can't have been easy to live with her disorders, her emotions are always honest and sincere. That is more than can be said for his.

Mr. Dafoe's Eliot not only marries for social entree, but, worse, does not shrink from using her family's money even after he shrinks from Viv. Obtuse chauvinist that he is, Viv's father does ,, not leave her or her mother any money, but puts it in a trust " controlled by her brother and Eliot -- which, given her brother's weakness and total intimidation by Eliot, means that Eliot has sole control of it. "Leave it to the boys, dear," is the way her mother puts it -- and the boys bury her.

Unable to stand up to Eliot, Viv's brother signs the papers to incarcerate her. Tim Dutton, as the abdicating sibling off to Africa, is good. Rosemary Harris, as Viv's true-blue but powerless mother, is extraordinary, bringing colorations and subtleties to the role that endow her with radiance and a moral solidity that quite eludes all the others who talk about morality.

The Oscar nominators got it right by recognizing Ms. Richardson and Ms. Harris. Ms. Richardson's brilliant and ultimately heartbreaking Viv isn't quite matched by Mr. Dafoe's command as Eliot.

It's a tough assignment, playing a shriveled soul, a stick. Yet, surprisingly, Mr. Dafoe is most convincing and almost touching when Eliot just stands looking pained, obviously wanting to escape -- and not just to the Church of England, as he did. He convinces us that there's humanity in Eliot, even though it's in hiding. When he speaks, though, we feel we're watching an actor who has studied Eliot's recordings giving us a skilled impersonation.

The period settings are immaculate, a big plus, and the grave clarity of the light -- it's almost fatalistic -- helps the film make its case that, in Eliot's words, everything Tom and Viv did fell apart.

It also makes clear that what are referred to as women's problems, and for which Viv paid dearly, were in fact men's problems -- her husband's, her father's and her brother's, to say nothing of the medico-legal establishment that expressed their myopia. Viv's impulse to flee England was the right one. Her tragedy was that she couldn't get out, and Ms. Richardson makes us feel her wings beating against the cage.

"Tom & Viv"

Starring Willem Dafoe, Miranda Richardson, Rosemary Harris

Directed by Brian Gilbert

Rated PG-13 (mature themes)

***

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