TOM AND VIV (1994)
CAST: MIRANDA RICHARDSON, WILLEM DAFOE, ROSEMARY HARRIS, TIM DUTTON, NICKOLAS GRACE.
DIRECTION : BRIAN GILBERT.
I got the opportunity to view the very underrated TOM AND VIV as part of a prestigious Films and Literature paper for my Masters degree in 2015. To cut a long story short, it was an intensely revelatory experience and moved me to tears. There will be a lump in the throat for anyone who watches it.
For starters, this is a tale draped in the sombre hues of an ill fated union between literary giant T. S Eliot and his anonymous better half Vivianne Haigh Wood. Director Brian Gilbert sculpts a candid portrait of this relationship bound to invite polarized views about not just the legend himself but also the supposedly cozy institution of marriage in general; the complexity of being understood by those who claim to love us and catch our drifts through the thick and thin of life’s never ending cycle, in particular, catches our attentions hence.
It’s a fictional retelling culled from a play by Michael Hastings and supposed real life accounts, and as the tradition of semi autobiographies go, nothing shown here should be considered the pinnacle of cinematic accuracy or gospel of absolute truth as regards primary facts. The truth, I believe, lies lodged in the dead who saw it all. However, the ones recreated here carry basic principals of its weight for sure. These concerns are eventually going to hardly matter as the dramatic representation is full of pathos, charm and the beautiful trajectory of Miranda Richardson and Rosemary Harris’ performances ( both were nominated for Oscars in 1995) vividly catapult every mood into one of veritable urgency.
The film opens with the voice over of Viv’s brother Maurice (Tim Hutton) and diagnoses the nerve of a college genius who caught the intellectual fancy of Bertrand Russell (Nickolas Grace) and attentions of a female student, the high spirited Viv (Richardson) The genius was an American by the name of Thomas Stearns Eliot whose single desire was to be christened an Englishman and settle down in the citadel of literary buzz to further his own prospects. As an admirer of the voice that gave us prophetic poetic masterpieces as THE WASTELAND, THE HOLLOW MAN, LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK, JOURNEY OF THE MAGI and the profound poetic drama MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL, I was caught off guard by how unconventional his beginnings were, facts known to me but only in passing. Unlike other figures, he’s far from a misanthrope here and his whirlwind romance and elopement with the loquacious Viv is sweet and fleetingly entertaining. The only showcase for her so far lies in her privileged background and supportive family who are willing to look beyond Eliot’s stiffneck persona and admire him for his sincerity of being. Thus, they take their vows. The gambols and initial promise of happy ever after disappears soon enough ; their bond hits the wall owing to a rare medical condition on Viv’s part which leads to wild hormonal and menstrual imbalances and, in turn, mental disintegration. This unraveling during their honeymoon invites poignancy. Eliot buckles under pressure but is avowed to a lifetime of commitment to the woman hailing his latent mastery and is an equal in literary partnership, so far as editing his famous works and even providing the title for THE WASTELAND.
With the passage of time as Viv’s impulses, reputation of an inchoate rebel and hysteria grows, so does her health deteriorate ; she gradually becomes a convalescent, threatens Tom’s burgeoning career in others’ eyes and winds up being a proverbial eyesore for a hypocritical genteel society suffering from paranoia of commitment for the mentally disabled, willing to throw them under the bus with casual alacrity. In that regard, dark recesses of human nature are unraveled and TOM AND VIV becomes a saga of two souls deeply in love, battling renonstrations of a worldly order, to beat mighty odds. It suggests and rightly so that these struggles became the blueprint for Eliot’s startlingly original portfolio and collective body of work that thrives to this date.
Miranda Richardson earns her fair share of kudos as a woman so helpless at restraining actions beyond her control and yet professing her sincerity, she breaks our hearts. Her predicaments also act as a crucible for showing us the human side of Eliot’s extraordinary personal dilly dallying, of promises that are better off being spelt than kept and fulfilled. Her only real support system through all this is her mother ( the excellent Rosemary Harris, who the world adores as Aunt May from the Spider-Man trilogy) She reminds Eliot of his tall claims and ultimate frailty, to which he succumbs, the weakness of advancing his career at the cost of the woman who championed his rise and was unconditional in her affections despite her mood swings and embarrassing displays of voluble tempers in public . I know this bitter pill will be swallowed with discomfort by Eliot loyalists and neutral audiences will embrace him as a man who gave twenty years of his life to his better half and never suffered a professional setback but fell prey to his own impulses to break free of the challenges. This is especially evocative as Eliot committed Viv to a mental institution, remarried and never looked back at her before her death. Given this gist and its heart rending depiction, it’s hard not to demonize him as a selfish opportunist who ended up personally being the ‘man’ he inherently was. But maturity tells us he was human and came saddled with the complexities of humanity.
The plot endears more so as limited medical advancements proclaimed a misdiagnosis on the doctors’ part, positing Viv’s condition as nothing more than an imbalance which science could not fathom correctly and one which was perfectly curable. By the time Viv resumed her grace and dignity , her soulmate had deserted her. This is the tragedy of her unique station in life, a woman lacking not wealth or intellect but the reserves of the era and a world to understand her, giving her a chance to be better and exactly who she is, with or without a permanent cure. It also lays bare a powerful examination of gender roles and the duality of individuals. However, let’s give Eliot his due as every man/woman is full of personal demons and he was no different. The point is, TOM AND VIV allows us to empathize with the protagonists and root, in all finality, for Viv, who emerged as the stronger individual, as admitted by her brother, and withstood her fate in her difficult years with a stoic resolve.
In fact, the beauty of the cast’s impressive output somewhat eclipses Willem Dafoe’s turn here, a personage docile to the point of being a clean slate in terms of facial transparency. For a man ( that is Eliot, in this case) who disseminated the objective co relative, a principle in which external facts correspond with the creation of immediate emotion, he was staunchly inhibited. In hindsight, I feel Dafoe did a good job of expressing Eliot’s inscrutable core. It’s always difficult portraying another human being. That said, there is an awkward see saw that pits the emotional highs against some of the unintentional spells of humour borne out of Viv’s unpredictable mania. Gilbert fine tunes those sequences with the precision and poignancy of its central premise.
In a startling scene, Virginia Woolf, a writer famous for giving respectable heft to the woes of distressed individuals in her novels, especially those under the pall of mental friction (as in MRS. DALLOWAY), exhibits disdain about Viv’s worthless presence in Tom’s life and bad mouths her behind her back. Tom’s defenses there take the shape of his defeat, in the final act of his inner war with principles of humanity and perseverance. These are snippets that briefly let us dust the curtains and clear cob webs about a token brand of compassion present everywhere.
Eliot was a maven on modern conscience, bore the insignia of the one who foresaw decay of civilization and vagaries of our generation much before anyone could imagine. Nevertheless in TOM AND VIV, Vivianne Haigh Wood trumps all expectations to emerge as the true survivor and Miranda dignifies her missteps and triumphs with a keen eye for playing with fire, ultimately dousing it with the sheer height of her spirit. TOM AND VIV uncovers human frailty, intellectual opposition, hard facts of life and stays with you. Like the beauty of poetry, the lilt of poignancy has no sound but tugs at our heartstrings in this betokened instance.
NOTE : this post simultaneously also appears as part of my Wattpad essay collection A LETTERED SOUL: REFLECTIONS ON LITERATURE, CINEMA AND CULTURE.