Why this film: Because it lined up so perfectly with this month’s Smackdown! So how could I not?
The Film: Who exactly was the predicted audience for Tom & Vivback in 1994? I don’t mean this exclusively as a dig on the source material or the finished product, but it’s hard to picture that the story of T.S. Eliot’s tumultuous marriage would’ve inspired that much fervor back in the day. The adaptation of the original play began nine years after it debuted on the West End, receiving one Laurence Olivier nomination before getting an off-Broadway run and vanishing from the stage for over twenty years. This lack of fanfare seems even more exasperated by its legacy nowadays, if it can be called that, saved from obscurity by way of two surprisingly high-profile Academy Award nominations that would still only attract those who’re deeply invested in either of the nominated women, Oscar completists who are doing it just cuz, folks who like watching period dramas about unstable women, or T.S. Eliot fans.
Of those groups, I’d imagine that the Eliot fans interested in a portrait of the artist would be the most consistently underwhelmed by the film, if only because his work is kept strictly in the film’s periphery. It’s talked about but rarely read aloud or shown, the focus on the Eliot’s marriage so predominant that his rising success and the income that comes with it is dramatized through their material wealth more that it is explicitly referenced, at least not to the degree of any of their personal lives. In fact, Eliot’s personal life and family ties don’t seem to exist outside of Viv until his fames grows, while Viv’s relationships to her family is one of the film’s central points of tension. The repercussions of Eliot’s fame are certainly discussed, as Viv worries that Tom is replacing her with his new poet friends and having affairs with women in those circles who’re dazzled by his work. There’s also the complication that Viv frequently claims to be his muse, his editor, and his sounding board, demanding credit for having given The Wasteland its name. This is not a hagiography of the artist, but the film’s focus on Eliot’s marriage and interest in Viv’s artistic credentials might keep this from being the deep plumbing of the artist someone might be hunting for.
Then again, an even bigger preclusion for Eliot fans to get into the film is how unfathomably dull Willem Dafoe is in the part. Any potential into getting a portrait of the man alongside or even superseding a portrait of the artist is stopped in its tracks by Dafoe’s soft-spoken, milquetoast take on the part. The man simply comes off as boring and stuffy, never worthy of the intrigue posed by Viv, his fellow poets, adoring fans, or anyone who presumes him to be a worthwhile figure. Dafoe is so passionless in the part, speaking his lines as softly as possible while infusing them with zero emotion, refusing to cling to any sense of intellect or to make his accent sound remotely natural, that there’s simply no believing that he might be having an affair with any of the women Viv is terrified of and antagonistic towards. What on earth could have drawn Viv to him in the first place?
Dafoe’s performance represents one half of the dichotomy of problems that best defines what makes Tom & Viv such a palpably uneven experience. If he stands in for the moments where the film could easily shape itself up more, Miranda Richardson’s energized but dangerously overmannered take on Vivienne Eliot emblematizes the film’s worst indulgences into overstatement. Richardson is more than capable of conjuring an air of instability and roiling inner turmoil, writing our her character’s thoughts through the darting glances of her eyes and jittery movements, but her madness becomes so prescriptive that it loses almost all spontaneity. In her best moments, which see her being more clearly guided by the director or by her costars, Richardson is able to temper herself slightly without sacrificing her tics, though it’s clear in these moments how little modulation is actually in the performance, aside from the moments where she makes a point of showing us that she’s modulating the performance in a lower tempo. True, she genuinely calms down in the film’s last act, but her impact before this point is ultimately limited, her scene-by-scene choices too obvious for them to build in any interesting way.
The film itself seems to follow a trajectory from being too hopped-up on its own, sporadically ostentatious filmmaking techniques all the way to almost dangerously non-cinematic, not so much a filmed play as just unimaginatively put together. This is not to say that the film is ever a showcase for its makers – director Brian Gilbert seems more than happy to slap his actors in period wares and let them carry the picture – but it’s still noticeable when the editing or the score become the primary method for the film to goose our responses. Its earliest scenes are by far the worst, as the almost 40 year old Dafoe is so heavily made up to impersonate a college-aged youth that his face loses any and all distinguishing features. He looks like a doll whose face has had any gendered characteristics smoothed away, as if he were an uncanny valley animation of an androgynous doll. Richardson’s makeup is fine, but she’s forced to pantomime the free-spirited behavior of a young person by running around with her arms outstretched as though she were a plane, galavanting on a lawn with a sign asking passerby not to galavant on it. In the next scene they meet, and in the next they pack their bags to get married. These scenes are relatively calm, something the film compensates for by showing Viv undergoing an abject breakdown, destroying their hotel room and taking a lot of her prescribed medication after an unsuccessful roll in the honeymoon sack, dramatically cross-cut with Tom’s furrowed brow contemplatively paces the shoreline of a beach.
If the establishing third of Tom & Viv is ultimately its shakiest segment, there’s something to be said for the film’s middle third, as all the pieces start sparking against each other in unexpectedly bracing ways. Even if Dafoe is unforgivably bland and Richardson semi-predictable in her brazenness, the shifting textures of their relationship are more interesting to watch play out than expected. It helps that Brian Gilbert’s direction finds an appropriately undemonstrative but still semi-active mode of shaping his story. Neither truly imaginative nor fully perfunctory, he finds the right distance from Richardson’s whirlwinds that they become more impactful as character beats rather than harried actressing. Watching her mix a boiling vat of chocolate, grow more and more vocally irate at a dinner party, draw on a mannequin with lipstick, all these actions are more compelling for how they’re shot. Simple and effective, enhancing Richardson’s work and feeding into the story with unexpected poignancy as we start to grasp how threatened Vivienne must constantly feel by these invaders who can provide something for her husband she cannot, knowing all the while that they know it too and are talking about it behind her back. This is not to suggest too much of a sudden transformation in the film’s overall style or impact – Dafoe is still left to softly murmur on in his scenes, and the cadres of artists and admirers that pop up around him are never as distinct or entrancing as they might be. Especially as he starts to seriously consider kicking Viv in a sanitarium, growing increasingly weary of her behavior, Dafoe’s performance remains as damp and demure as ever. Her fears of adultery never ring as plausible, Dafoe even drags down Richardson and the script with as little effort as possible on his part. A hot-blooded Tom might’ve really tapped in to the script’s dramatic potential, but the sight of Viv fighting so hard against people who could all have a legitimate claim to her husband’s attention, borne from paranoia that doesn’t seem borne from absolutely nothing is frankly more compelling than it has any right to be. There’s clearly a version of this story about an unreliable man sending his unreliable wife to a sanitarium on dubious grounds, one stifled by a weak leading man and half-baked direction but still able to burst through the interpretation we’re getting at odd, unexpected angles.
There is at least one unabashed bright spot in the film, in the form of Rosemary Harris’s subtly affecting performance as the matriarch of the Haigh-Wood clan. Without ever working to undermine Tom & Viv’s leading actors, she nevertheless coaxes stronger, more consistent performances from Dafoe and especially Richardson, stabilizing the latter without forgoing Mrs. Haigh-Wood’s own characterization. The film is at its best when it follows the lead of her perfectly contained but still very palpable anxiety, and is never better than in the uncomfortable sequence of Tom having dinner with Vivienne’s immediate family for the first time. Viv spends most of the meal asking provocative, blatantly upsetting questions of her loved ones. Her family telegraph exhaustion at having had this kind of dinner table conversation too many times already but still irritated by her behavior, before Rose takes her daughter aside and gets her to actually calm down, only for her lucid confession about her feelings for Tom to startle her poor mother. It takes real intelligence to project a stable grasp of her daughter’s neuroses, worrying about her future with this new man while still finding room to be elated and disappointed by both of them without overacting. Particularly in her last scenes, hurt and confused after realizing that Viv tried to stab her – even if it was with a fake knife – but perhaps even more wounded that Tom packing Vivvie off to an asylum has proven how badly this man has failed Rose and her daughter, Harris proves herself an unfussy and emotionally sincere performer within a film less stable than its central marriage.
Harris is more of a face in the crowd in her second-to-last sequence, as one of several family members and doctors present for a verbal test to see if Vivienne is certifiable for sanitarium care. This is surprisingly the film’s weakest stretch, beginning with Tom trying to warn Viv before the doctors arrive as the two engage in unexpectedly romantic talk about the state of their relationship. Here, Richardson is the primary source of that romance, which comes across as sentimental and unearned considering that Viv is suddenly without her livewire physicality and higher pitched emotions. Now she speaks in a soft voice, speaks warmly, but she undermines any of the film’s complications by stating its theses in such a loving way. She’s not wrong to judge Tom for his own lies and put-ons and for not being able to face the music the way she wanted him to, but the fact that the Viv who’s saying this is so radically unlike the Viv we’ve spent the previous hour with undermines these ideas. And yet, her affectations return in an oddly performative key once the doctors arrive, as if she’s a deer caught in headlights and trying to hurl herself at them as the last defense mechanism she has left. That they even bother with the test instead of carting her right off after Viv attempts to stab her mother with a rubber knife is pretty bizarre in itself, but Richardson’s playing strips the scene of any dramatic potential or ambiguity as she intentionally answers one of the questions incorrectly. More than that, the filmmaking is complicit in romanticizing her last act of self-sabotage, as the score swells under close ups of Tom and Viv exchanging meaningful glances before she gives the wrong answer, the scene abruptly ending as if the test actually ended on the second question.
I said earlier that the film transitions from Viv-like over-enthusiasm to Tom-ish stultification, and though the scene above certainly fits that bill, a better description for the last third might be that they simply have no other function except as being the end to a story. Both partners, gracefully made up into middle age, speak of their devotion to each other despite the fact that Tom has not visited his wife or made any attempt to contact her at the sanitarium in ten years. Dafoe’s last scene is almost completely carried by the overwhelming, piano-heavy score as he gives the cold shoulder to an old friend Viv once said wanted to sleep with her. Meanwhile, Richardson finds the right tempo between containing the energy that’s defined her performance for most of the film while suggesting some genuine recovery over the past ten years. She’s relaxed and unsentimental in her final scene, giving a fond yet forceful line reading to “Chin up.”, as her brother tries not to cry, that’s more impactful than a line so blatantly structured as a farewell forever aimed at the heartstrings has a right to be. There’s little here that’s interesting in the way that the preceding half hour was, and Gilbert ranking the volume on that orchestra as the credits roll certified that I was far less moved than he was clearly expecting. If Tom & Vivends as unevenly as it began, I’m not sure if what painfully doesn’t work is enough to dismiss the moments where it comes to some kind of bracing life. In the moments where Harris shows the pain of a mother watching her child implode, where Richardson’s neuroses click into place and the script’s darker subtexts are able to be furnished show the rich potential that this story ultimately has. Tom & Viv isn’t crying out for any retreads, and I’m not sure how much this story deserves to be saved from the unusual legacy of almost complete anonymity that only pedigreed English adaptations of biographies of poets resulting in two high-profile Oscar nominations can truly earn. But it’s not without its merits, and something this uneven has the kind of quiet but sturdy highs that can stand against its more visible and ungainly lows.