It’s the early 1960s and ambitious author Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) is smarting from the lukewarm reception afforded to his recently published children’s novel, James and the Giant Peach. Undeterred, he’s planning his next opus, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We know he’s an author because he constantly talks about the work in progress, dropping little references that relate to what’s coming next and using his three children, Olivia, Tessa and Theo, as sounding boards for his new ideas. This is something that, in my experience, real authors never do. Should I ever fall into the habit, please feel free to tell me to shut up.
Dahl lives in darkest Surrey with his wife, acclaimed screen actress, Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes), who is herself dissatisfied by the fact that her once eventful career seems to be heading nowhere fast, since she’s reached a certain age – though she has been offered a small part in Martin Ritt’s upcoming movie, a little thing called Hud. (Roald thinks the part is beneath her and advises her not to bother).
But their country idyll is shattered when Olivia contracts measles and, with no vaccine available in the 1960s, promptly dies of encephalitis. This film then is about Dahl’s desperate attempts to come to terms with the death of his daughter and his subsequent struggle to maintain both his marriage to Neal and his relationships with his other children. On paper, it promises to be a visceral tearjerker. But somehow, it’s not.
John Hays’ film makes a valiant attempt to cover this difficult subject matter, but seems to shy away from anything too tortuous or distasteful, which means it all feels rather too cosy for its own good. Attempts have been made to ‘plain up’ Hugh Bonneville with a false nose and a balding pate but, even when he’s being unpleasant – something that the real Roald Dahl was allegedly very adept at – he’s still basically Hugh Bonneville, the very definition of a thoroughly nice chap. Hawes is perhaps a better fit for Neal, but isn’t given the kind of catharsis her character requires. Even her brief interplay with Paul Newman (Sam Heughan, who certainly looks the part) seems more concerned with pointing out how capable she is at putting the director and lead actor straight about their own project, which just feels downright odd.
To Olivia is curiously underwhelming. There’s an admittedly lovely turn from Isabella Jonsson as Tessa and there’s also the final performance from Geoffrey Palmer as a deeply unpleasant archbishop of Canterbury, ranting about animals not being allowed into the kingdom of heaven, but even that isn’t enough to make this project fly.
It’s like being assaulted with nicely plumped cushions – you don’t really feel any impact.