Crime of one

Tom and Viv unearths a forgotten life

Few literature students have escaped exposure to the works of T.S. Eliot. Although Eliot's influence has waned somewhat, he represented, for the post-World War II American academic elite, a living wish-fulfillment fantasy of everything they thought a man of letters should be--Anglophilic to the extreme (he renounced his American citizenship as a young man to become a subject in the Queen's empire and a member of the Church of England), discreet, stoic, professing to reject emotional content as the highest form of discipline in art.

And Eliot refused to associate with anyone who dared utter a word about his formative years as a poet--and the deeply troubled first wife who may or may not have exercised a profound influence on his verse.

Let's be honest about it--one of the most compelling things about Tom and Viv, director Brian Gilbert's costume character study about Eliot and his tragic youthful bride Vivienne Haigh-Wood, based on Michael Hastings' 1984 play, is the sense of lurid tattle-telling on a period in this literary lion's life that was deliberately suppressed for many decades. You may or may not approve of such tabloid grave-robbing, but it's ridiculous to suggest these revelations aren't relevant to the study of Eliot's early work, especially The Waste Land.

Playwright and screenwriter Hastings encountered great resistance to his research efforts, which were spurred on by the confessions of Vivienne's feckless brother Maurice (Tim Dutton), who was co-executor of her sizable estate and responsible, along with Eliot (Willem Dafoe), for keeping her locked in a posh institution where she would eventually die, alone and rarely visited, even when it was obvious menopause had brought an end to her physical and psychological turmoil.

Vivienne (Miranda Richardson) was the apparent victim of a hormonal imbalance, little-understood by the best practitioners of early 20th century medicine. The condition caused her to suffer profuse vaginal bleeding several times a week and experience something similar to the condition we now call manic-depression: she experienced giddy, publicly embarrassing highs followed by near-suicidal lows. The gynecological nature of her troubles made them a terribly dirty secret, especially for the aristocratic family from which she hailed. Doctors prescribed alcohol- and morphine-based medications that only worsened her plight.

In Gilbert's film, Eliot is portrayed as a man dedicated to his wife throughout the worst of her erratic behavior--until his own international stature as a poet began to rise, and it became obvious her condition was a liability. Vivienne is not depicted here as not just another willful female iconoclast silenced by a patriarchal system. She was capable of violent episodes--trashing rooms in angry fits, driving automobiles off the road, pulling a fake knife on a terrified Virginia Woolf (one of the film's funniest moments), and staging bizarre, provocative stunts (one involves a large pot of melted chocolate) that contributed to the public perception she was uncontrollable and even dangerous.

But the most fascinating aspect of the film is the implication that her lunacy was channeled in very deliberate directions. Why was Haigh-Wood so determined to alienate everyone? Gilbert and Hastings claim it was jealousy--they feature scenes in which Vivienne not only edits her husband's work, but rewrites for publication some of his most famous lines.

Oddly, Tom and Viv's major deficit is Willem Dafoe's wan, insubstantial turn as T.S. Eliot. Dafoe is a talented actor, but here he's confined to the reactionary role of a respectable man whose real motives remain a mystery till the end. It's as if Gilbert and Hastings lost the courage of their convictions and denied the great god Eliot any human complexities, even in a fictionalized script.

Ultimately, the picture belongs to Miranda Richardson, and she rescues it with the slyest "crazy lady" performance ever seen on film. With pursed lips, rolling eyes, and (sometimes) barely restrained shouts, she renders Haigh-Wood as a vengeful psychotic who never fails to slip a kernel of truth into her shocking escapades. Her delivery mixes the same twitchy rage she brought to her debut in Mike Newell's 1985 Dance With a Stranger with a spoonful of comic self-awareness. In Richardson's hands, Haigh-Wood is as willing to play the clown as the avenger, and we understand some combination of both is what made her such a burden to Eliot.

The film's sad coda, after what appears to be a lengthy campaign of sabotage against literary fame, is that she sacrifices herself for his reputation--they exchange glances at the moment just before her freedom is denied, and we understand, thanks to Richardson's emotionally tangled performance, that her character has finally given up the fight against the social status Eliot so eagerly sought.

Tom and Viv. Miramax. Starring Miranda Richardson, Willem Dafoe, Rosemary Harris. Written by Michael Hastings and Adrian Hodges, based on his play. Directed by Brian Gilbert. Now showing.

 
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