Tom & Viv
1994, R, 125 min. Directed by Brian Gilbert. Starring Nickolas Grace, Rosemary Harris, Miranda Richardson, Willem Dafoe.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 17, 1995
The Tom and Viv under scrutiny in this movie are none other than T.S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne. Eliot we all recognize as one of the revolutionizers of 20th-century poetry, an American-born but expatriated British subject, a Nobel prize-winning lion of literature who championed the literary idea of seeking the universal truths in the personal, social, and psychological experiences of one's life. What Tom and Viv would have us recognize about Eliot's artistry is the contribution made by Eliot's wife Vivienne. The movie is more than one of those “behind every great man, there's a great woman” resurrections. Tom and Viv argues all throughout that Vivienne played an essential part in the creation of Eliot's writing -- as muse, editor, helpmate, typist, and collaborator. Yet, rarely do we see these actions; they are instead repeated to us verbally throughout the movie. Literary historians quibble with some of the film's historical assertions and the stuff of marriage will always be a source of conjecture for the outside public. What Tom and Viv does contribute to the story of the Eliots' marriage is a lot of graphic detail about Vivienne's “female trouble.” Vivienne suffered terribly from menstrual difficulties which caused her to hemorrhage and become extremely unbalanced emotionally. In the 1920s, these problems were swept away behind closed doors, but Vivienne's troubles created such socially inappropriate behavior that, after several years of marriage, her husband had her committed to an asylum, where she eventually died as a sane, post-menopausal woman. As the anguished Vivienne, Miranda Richardson's performance is truly possessed. It's quite something to watch, but ultimately goes nowhere. The casting of Willem Dafoe as the reserved poet Eliot is a most odd choice, since we tend to associate him with more high-strung characterizations. Yet he manages to do a good job of portraying this odd American fish out of water in England as well as a man whose moral sense is in a constant quandary. The real gem of the group, though, is Rosemary Harris as Vivienne's mother, who sensitively tries to shield her daughter and train her to cope with the “problem.” It's a rich and rewarding performance. Instead of finding more moments like Harris', director Gilbert (Not Without My Daughter) wallows far too long in the histrionics of the story. But the basics of the narrative never really add up.