Film Reviews

Married to Poetry

"Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion," we hear T.S. Eliot lecture a room full of admirers in Tom and Viv, "but an escape from emotion." We don't hear what Eliot said next, but it's as if we did: "[Poetry] is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality."

Unfortunately, screenwriters Michael Hastings and Adrian Hodges follow the letter of Eliot's edict without getting its meaning. They would have done well to listen to how Eliot finished his thought: "But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."

Tom and Viv never shows us the sweep of personality and emotions that made Eliot want to keep close tabs on the bothersome items; instead, the man who is arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century is a virtual void on-screen. Words, the very things that made Eliot interesting, are this movie's problem; with brief exceptions, we're not given the ones we want -- Eliot's prose or, especially, his poetry -- and the ones we are given don't let us in on the individual behind the talent. Too, as the title suggests, Thomas Stearns Eliot is only half the story; the other half belongs to his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a woman some literary critics point to as the inspiration, and maybe even source, of much of Eliot's greatest verse. Sadly, the screenwriters don't know what to do with Haigh-Wood either, unable to decide if they're chronicling a doomed marriage or reclaiming for Haigh-Wood her place in history. In trying to do both, they manage neither.

The film begins with a brief courtship at Oxford in 1914 and ends with Haigh-Wood's (Miranda Richardson) death in 1947. Eliot (Willem Dafoe) is bowled over by what he calls her "uncanny understanding," but her gifts remain unopened for us. For his part, Eliot presents a notoriously fastidious demeanor and determinedly British accent; as his aristocratic mother-in-law observes, the American from St. Louis is "a bit of a stick, but he's eager to be like us."

From the courtship and marriage, we're taken into Haigh-Wood's battle for her sanity, a battle that prompts the reserved Eliot to separate himself from her. But the movie is perfunctory in dealing with Haigh-Wood's struggle. She makes scenes at dinners, smashes cars, abuses her medication, wields a toy knife. Yet there's no getting around the fact that no matter how sympathetically the film treats her, she's made into a cliche.

What's worse is that while Haigh-Wood is said to be a great help to Eliot's writing, about all we see her do is type his manuscripts. We have no sense that she's soul mate as well as albatross; we're deprived of how their relationship, and Eliot's nagging guilt about his emotional inabilities, fueled Eliot's art.

Director Brian Gilbert doesn't help things much. Bertrand Russell (Nickolas Grace), Eliot's mentor, is reduced to a giddy flirt, while Eliot's crucial religious investigations are limited to a bishop coming and going from his flat. In 1938, Haigh-Wood was involuntarily committed by Eliot and her family, a commitment from which she never escaped. The committal occurs at a restaurant in which, over the din of diners, thuggish doctors drag Haigh-Wood away. But instead of ending the movie immediately after that -- with the powerful image of Eliot closing the iron-mesh door of an elevator and caging himself in -- Gilbert leaps into the future, where Haigh-Wood explains that a hormonal imbalance caused her illness, that after menopause she was quite sane and that Eliot had no contact with her during her final years. A postscript would have worked better.

Though Richardson makes Haigh-Wood all flitty eyes, chaotic energy and skewed inner logic, and though Dafoe is surprisingly effective at suggesting the complex inner life of a man so discreet he's quite horrid, fine performers can't overcome a film that, even when raising the right question -- "There go Tom and Viv. What do they say to each other? Whatever do they say?" asks one character -- doesn't know how to answer it.

Tom and Viv.
Directed by Brian Gilbert. Starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson.
Rated R.
125 minutes.

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Peter Szatmary