- Emma Simmonds
- 18 February 2021
Keeley Hawes and Hugh Bonneville play Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl in this emotional biopic
Keeley Hawes always seems to be having a moment. This hardworking and versatile actress has just floored us in Channel 4's It's a Sin and is currently starring in ITV's Finding Alice and here she is again in feature To Olivia. Moreover, Honour, Misbehaviour and Rebecca are all in recent memory. Hawes probably isn't the headliner in this film, which focuses on a particularly rocky period in the marriage of actress Patricia Neal and writer Roald Dahl – she plays the former, though there's slightly more emphasis on the latter's journey – but she's the best thing in it.
Some rather nice animated credits rattle through Neal and Dahl's separate backstories, taking us to 1961, where the narrative begins. The pair are living with their three children in rural Buckinghamshire and suffering a creative funk, with Neal worrying that she's 'past-it' as an actress and Dahl (played by Downton's Hugh Bonneville) disappointed by the performance of James and the Giant Peach. Both of them are drinking and can be very cruel to one another. 'Kids want Enid Blyton, not the twisted crap that comes out of your head,' Neal drunkenly points out. Then tragedy strikes.
Hawes' American accent doesn't exactly hold firm but the rawness of her grief convinces, as do scenes where Neal suffers professional insecurity as she signs on for Hud (the film that would win her an Oscar), struggling to assert herself in the presence of a cocky and insensitive Paul Newman (charismatic work from Sam Heughan). But the flat execution from director John Hay does the leads no favours and Bonneville's Dahl suffers most. With the writer paralysed by his own grief and self-pity, it's a potentially interesting take, yet the film struggles to establish his personality and peculiar talent, coming off a touch twee and pedestrian, when Dahl was famed for his twisted humour and fantastic imagination. The rushed approach to tragedy and sentimental score don't help.
With actors like Conleth Hill and the late Geoffrey Palmer (who has a fun scene as a horrible headmaster) filling out the cast, To Olivia has many of the hallmarks of a classy British drama, but given the calibre of the actors and meatiness of the material it could have been so much more.
Available to watch on Sky Cinema from Fri 19 Feb.