VOD film review: To Olivia
James R | On 20, Feb 2021
Director: John Hay
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Keeley Hawes, Sam Heughan
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Roald Dahl was one of the great children’s authors. He was also not a very nice man – it is only a few months since his family apologised for his history of antisemitism. To then portray him as a heartfelt, sympathetic and tragic figure is a big ask of any film. To Olivia, despite its best efforts, doesn’t come up with an answer.
Hugh Bonneville takes on the mantle of the author, whom we meet just as his latest book, James and the Giant Peach, is struggling to gain traction. He’s a charming, kind man, apparently, played with a twinkle by the Paddington star, as he politely but firmly deals with a young boy’s rude father, who dismisses his work as “James and the Big Pineapple”. Swooping in to take him away from that exchange his Hollywood wife Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes), who is also struggling to get back into the acting game after several children. At least, we think, they have each other.
Their family life, though, is upended by their loss of Olivia in 1962 to measles-induced encephalitis. It’s a devastating tragedy that you wouldn’t wish upon anyone, and the film captures the unspeakable grief that sets in like a fog in their home. But this isn’t just any couple, and the script’s decision to effectively sanitise Dahl for modern audiences leaves the whole exercise feeling strangely detached and unconvincing.
The always-brilliant Bonneville gives it his all, but is hindered by some questionable make-up, while the introduction of a lingering spirit (Dahl as a young boy) only serves as a cliched distraction. Indeed, it’s telling that the scenes involving Keeley Hawes (fresh from a stellar turn in It’s a Sin) are the ones that actually engage, as she rehearses for her future Oscar-winning part in Hud, opposite Paul Newman (Sam Heughan).
The result is a strangely hollow and insincere exploration of grief, leaving To Olivia feeling like an awkward postscript to superior biopics of children’s authors, such as Saving Mr Banks.
To Olivia is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.