Probably the strongest image in the public mind of actor Hugh Bonneville is the bluff and sometimes bumbling head of the Downton clan. Or perhaps the sometimes irascible but basically kindly Dad figure to Paddington Bear. So for him to play the reputedly dark and often difficult author Roald Dahl might seem a bit of a stretch. The subject matter of To Olivia though inclines us towards a more sympathetic though still quite dark view of the writer.
The film is set in the early sixties when Dahl and his wife, the American actress Patricia Neal, are living in Buckinghamshire and bringing up their three children. Roald’s obvious favourite is seven year old Olivia, a favouritism which is keenly felt by her younger sister Tess. There is some strain between the parents. Roald’s first children’s book James and the Giant Peach has failed to sell and Patricia, who isn’t keen on his tales anyway, is worried about their finances. But it is basically a good marriage – friction laced with humour and love.
Until tragedy strikes, when Olivia dies, a victim of measles-induced encephalitis. While Patricia holds the family together, Roald retreats into his grief, refusing to allow her name to be spoken. He disappears for long periods into the sturdy garden shed where he attempts to write – in a notebook in pencil on his lap, no typewriter – while consuming large quantities of whiskey and disapprovingly observed by a ghostly schoolboy who is presumably a rather unnecessary visual depiction of his younger self.
Both Bonneville and Hawes are incapable of giving anything less than good performances. Hawes is not totally convincing as an American but then there is something firmly old fashioned English stiff upper lip about much of the treatment of this family tragedy, which may be what gives her character more than a touch of Celia Johnson with a subdued American accent. And though the script’s source material is based on a biography of Neal, it is Roald who tends to dominate.
One of the most powerful scenes is when the couple visit Roald’s former headmaster Geoffrey Fisher, who had then recently retired as Archbishop of Canterbury. Looking for comfort and solace, they are taken aback by Fisher’s brusque and brutal insistence that Olivia’s beloved animals will not be with her in Heaven as animals are not allowed there. It is a masterly and memorably sour cameo from the late Geoffrey Palmer in what was to be his last role. Roald and Patricia are driving home after the encounter, both angry and laughing at the old man’s inflexible view of God. The laughter then unexpectedly turns to tears for Roald, as he is finally able to show his grief. It is one of the most moving moments in the film.
As Olivia in the early part of the film Darcey Ewart creates with Bonneville a beautiful sense of the magic storytelling world that father and daughter enjoyed together, while in contrast Isabella Johnson is almost mature in her performance as Tess, who feels herself to be the outsider in the family. Towards the end of the film here is also a brave attempt by “Outlander” heartthrob Sam Heughan to impersonate Paul Newman, auditioning Patricia for the role in Hud for which she later won an Oscar.
To Olivia, a Sky Original film, is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from 19th February