Depending on one’s familiarity with either the works of world-famous author Roald Dahl, or Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal, biopic To Olivia may prove to be a fascinating watch. I was much more familiar with the former over the latter, so thankfully the film’s opening credits take us through an all-animated journey across Neal’s filmography and life story up until she actually meets Roald. Directed and co-written by John Hay, To Olivia does an admirable job at portraying both sides of a tragic loss and a crumbling marriage while the flickers of success take a backseat.
Starting in November of 1942, To Olivia perfectly captures the meeting of Dahl (played by Hugh Bonneville) and Neal (Keeley Hawes) at a quaint book reading event for Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. A parent there makes a joke about how Dahl should name his next book Johnny and the Giant Pineapple, and instantly notices Neal is in attendance. Dahl claims to not know who she is, and considers most celebrities to be empty and vapid. When he greets her though, Dahl’s vibe is entirely different. Despite being married already, Neal seems drawn to him. She says she’s a sucker for a tall man, or a “man who cooks a good breakfast,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
After this point, which only comprises just over ten minutes, To Olivia careens quickly through the lives of Dahl and Neal, up to the point where they are raising three children on the English countryside. Dahl is making no money from his books, while marital tensions start to cause inner chaos. The vibe of the two raising their children is very cutesy and almost whimsical. John Hay and co-writers David Logan and Stephen Michael Shearer fill the script with little easter eggs for many of Dahl’s works. The youngest, Tessa, has a little doll named Matilda, and Olivia the spunky “zookeeper” wishes her favorite candies (the gobstoppers) could last forever. Even the opening book-reading sequence had a little boy named Gus who sharply resembles the one in Dahl’s The Witches.
Olivia sadly expires from the measles, far too young to be taken from the world. This tragic loss shatters and fractures the marriage seemingly beyond repair. Admittedly, To Olivia falls into many of the same holes as other recent biopics like Spencer. Why choose to focus on the most dour and depressing aspects of these celebrity’s lives when there is so much light and goodness throughout their careers? We barely get a glimpse at the successes of either figure, a crying shame considering the breadth of their works.
I think the story being structured in a different way would work gangbusters on capturing the deep emotional beats without wallowing in their sorrow. For an author whose works were uplifting to so many, Roald Dahl’s story needed a spruce of lightness, and a stylish flair that is simply not here. Despite being a definite depressing tale, To Olivia is a well-made drama with two exceptionally good performances at its center. My favorite part about watching was to pick out the various references to Dahl’s works.
To Olivia writes a new book for audiences in limited release theaters on Friday, April 15th.