Tortured artists take centre stage in Brian Gilbert’s double-header from 1994 and 1997 respectively. The period dramas take a closer look at two of Britain’s greatest literary figures. Costumes, wigs and grand buildings abound as the outer frippery that surrounded Oscar Wilde and TS Eliot’s lives is contrasted by the complex dark interiors of their minds. These films are intriguing to watch together as they tease out the unlikely similarities between two very different characters. Wilde, famed for hedonism and an extroverted sensibility becomes as troubled as the strained, reserved Eliot. Wilde is adapted from “Oscar Wilde” by Richard Ellmann, while Tom & Viv is an adaptation of a 1984 play of the same name by Michael Hastings.
Wilde immediately sparks a film-long celeb-spotting safari. Let’s make a quick list: Stephen Fry (as Oscar Wilde), Jude Law (as ‘Bosie’ Douglas) and Michael Sheen (as Robbie Ross) take the majority of the screen time but the role of honour goes on. Self-indulgently, the most pleasing moment in this, admittedly childish response to a serious film, is glimpsing Orlando Bloom quite early in the piece. Ooh, who will he be playing? Another of Oscar’s conquests no doubt. But no, upon further inspection as the credits role, there he is, at the bottom of page two, described simply as ‘Rent Boy’.
Once you get used to the red carpet style carousel of stars and the initial plethora of Stephen Fry-related homoerotic fantasies there is an honest treatment of a man who was subject to a great judicial tragedy and quirk of contemporary ignorance. Wilde was sent to jail after he was publicly accused of homosexuality, this is a fact widely known. However, the effect on his wife and three children is less considered. Bosie and Ross also show their true colours in Wilde’s absence. Among the cherubic-faced pillars of modern British drama, Law’s petulance is wholly believable and Sheen’s love is tragic. Director Gilbert gives a real sense of the effect that Lord Queensbury had on his family, especially Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) and how that affects Wilde’s arguably fatal decision to sue for libel. The series of events are somewhat of a montage of the Anglo-Irish poet’s most memorable aphorisms, theatrical performances and sexual exploits but in a sense this is inevitable when depicting a man who led such a public life.
Tom & Viv takes a very different storytelling approach in many ways. While Oscar Wilde occupies a singular focal point, Thomas Stearns Eliot (Willem Defoe) and Vivienne Haigh-Wood (Miranda Richardson) occupy equal space and means for concern in a slower, tense story of love, mental illness and class expectation.
Again, the highlights of Eliot’s literary life are rather clunkily airdropped into the narrative. At one point, a printed copy of “The Waste Land” is held up for admiration as if you may have forgotten this was a TS Eliot biopic. Nevertheless, the complex dynamic between the married couple is given plenty of room to breathe across a two-hour depiction. There is definitely a feeling of more space here as much of the stress between them is interiorised. This is a contrast to the room given to the eloquence of Wilde who can articulate difficult feelings, even at the most difficult of times and in fact you want him to, it his was an unrivalled wit. Defoe is deliberately frustrating in his low, monotonous drone of a voice. Despite the success of his BBC poetry readings, it’s a voice that more soporific than superlative. His strange appeal is matched by the whacky, rollercoaster of a performance from Richardson. The condition Vivien suffered was poorly understood and treated (in her case) even worse. Violent mood swings, fatigue and migraines were a constant battle and to ‘society’, an embarrassment. The Haigh-Wood family play an important support role through Viv’s mother (Rosemary Harris) and brother (Phillip Locke, who incidentally crops up in Wilde).
The emotional heart of the film comes in the form of another legal incongruity. After much soul-searching on Tom’s behalf the decision is made to commit her. The mental anguish of loving a woman that shifted in front of his eyes is said to have inspired Eliot’s greatest work. If this is the case then losing her must have been doubly painful. Unfortunately, the relationship had passed breaking point by that stage and Viv explains that Tom never visited her in the asylum. The feelings of Tom take a backseat towards the end of the film as he goes to America for a teaching post. His visual absence is matched by a lack of resolution as to why he seemingly abandoned someone he clearly loved so much and had lived with during some of her most unstable periods. A visit by a member of American military personnel leaves behind many unanswered questions as the curtain closes.
Review by George Meixner
Both are available on Blu-Ray and to download from 14 December, courtesy of Altitude Film Distribution.