“Tom & Viv”
A Thirty-Year First Marriage
Set in1915, T.S. (Tom) Eliot (Willem Dafoe) and Vivienne Haigh-Wood (Miranda Richardson) elope, but her longstanding gynecological and emotional problems disrupt their planned honeymoon. Her father is angry because Tom’s poetry doesn’t bring in enough to live on, but her mother is happy Viv has found a tender and discreet husband. “Tom and Viv” is an examination of T.S. Eliot’s tragic first marriage. It attempts to chronicle the thirty-plus year marriage and begins with their 1915 courtship, when both were in their twenties. Tom and Viv’s courtship was a whirlwind affair— the pair eloped before Tom learns his wife’s “dark secret.” She is the victim of a misdiagnosed hormonal imbalance which causes wild mood swings. The a supposed treatment — which includes massive doses of alcohol and morphine-based medications — serves only to further destabilize Vivienne. Nevertheless, despite his obvious distress, Tom sticks by his wife although few aspects of there are disastrous.
There are times when the film is over melodramatic and it drags a good bit of the way. Miranda Richardson brings a relish to her acting and this brought her an Oscar nomination. She is filled vigor, panache and nervous intelligence. She is perfect to play Viv.
Tom & Viv are two mismatched people: one, disciplined and brilliant, who achieves great distinction as a writer; the other, mercurial and tortured, who struggles to define herself in her husband’s shadow. It didn’t take long for the lovers to see the flaws in each other. Tom is a virgin with no taste for sex. Vivienne is addicted to a number of wrongly prescribed medicines that throw her emotions out of whack.
At first, Vivienne’s father is appalled with her choice of Tom, a poet that has no prospects for suitable employment or income and has sold only 200 copies of his published poetry. His manners are so impeccable, however, that he charms Vivienne’s mother, who believes that “Tom” loves her daughter, demons and all.
Indeed, the real T.S. Eliot was so effective at impersonating a real Brit — at dressing and speaking in the British style that he fooled people into thinking he was British by birth. Brian Gilbert, directed the film with a certain chasteness and formality that is a hallmark of British biographical drama. Like Eliot, he is fastidious, refined, and a bit bloodless with a juicy story to tell and a tremendous cast to act it out. The film shows how Vivienne’s “madness” is exacerbated by medicine and defined not only by the times she lived in but by the tight, meticulous man to whom she was married.
Dafoe, who uses his mysterious, reptilian face to good advantage to give us an Eliot who comes across as shrewd and highly controlled, a man hungry for social status and career recognition, and pained by his wife’s troubles. But Eliot is ultimately willing to sacrifice her for the sake of his reputation. When Vivienne acts out in public and humiliates Tom, we see grave, inconvenienced look on his face. It’s a look that has less to do with his concern for Vivienne and more with the threat she poses to his professional standing.
The story of Eliot’s first marriage was unspoken about for years. Viv remained in the sanitarium for 11 years, even after she had recovered from her ailments, and Eliot never tried to have her released.
Eliot’s greatest work, “The Waste Land,” was largely inspired by their marriage. Vivienne remained faithful to Eliot and is always ready to defend her husband as the greatest poet in the English language. She once described him as do fine a person that “he should be living among kings, covered in raiment.” Richardson understands her character almost implicitly, and captures the complex, sad truth of Vivienne’s need to believe in her husband’s goodness so that she could survive.