Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes in emotional Roald Dahl biopic To Olivia

Undated film still handout from To Olivia. Pictured: Sam Heughan as Paul Newman and Keeley Hawes as Patricia Neal. PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Reviews. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thing One Ltd 2020. All Rights Reserved. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Reviews.
Damon Smith

TO OLIVIA (PG, 99 mins) Drama/Romance. Hugh Bonneville, Keeley Hawes, Darcey Ewart, Isabella Jonsson, Sam Heughan, Conleth Hill, Alfie Hardy, Tommy James Hardy. Director: John Hay.

Released: February 19 (available exclusively on Sky Cinema)

OVER the course of a distinguished literary career, Roald Dahl dedicated books to each of his five children.

The name of his eldest daughter, Olivia, appears at the beginning of James And The Giant Peach when she was still alive and posthumously in The BFG, after she had died from encephalitis following a measles infection.

When the vivacious seven-year-old died on November 17 1962, there was no measles vaccine in England.

Dahl and his wife, screen star Patricia Neal, subsequently became passionate advocates for the campaign to immunise children.

John Hay's heartfelt drama chronicles the impact of Olivia's death in an era of stiff upper lips and staunchly traditional gender roles.

"Why can't you just cry like a normal person?" Neal berates her grief-stricken husband, who is numbed into silence and inaction by the loss of his precocious muse.

Hay's script, co-written by David Logan, treads lightly over the couple's emotional turmoil, eliciting strong performances from Hugh Bonneville (replete with facial prosthetic) and Keeley Hawes as they navigate anguish, rage and regret behind closed doors.

A stylish animated sequence over the opening credits succinctly traces the paths of Royal Air Force fighter pilot Dahl (Bonneville) and Tony Award-winning actress Neal (Hawes) to their "rickety old tub" of a home in Great Missenden via the bright lights of Hollywoodland.

It's 1961 and James And The Giant Peach has sold just over 2,600 copies.

Unpaid bills are piling up and Neal is searching for a film script worthy of her talents.

While Dahl pens his next book, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, in the garden shed, Neal tends to their brood, Olivia (Darcey Ewart), Tessa (Isabella Jonsson) and Theo (Alfie and Tommy James Hardy).

It's a bucolic existence, infused with Dahl's sense of childlike wonder.

The sudden death of eldest child Olivia casts a dark shadow over the household.

Patricia becomes frustrated by her husband's refusal to articulate his feelings and she lashes out at his creative endeavours: "Kids want Enid Blyton, not the twisted crap that comes out of your head!"

The disintegrating marriage reaches crisis point when director Marty Ritt (Conleth Hill) implores Patricia to return to Los Angeles with her children to star in Hud opposite Paul Newman (Sam Heughan).

Based on Stephen Michael Shearer's biography of Neal, To Olivia paints Dahl as a troubled and complex character, who exorcised some of his demons on the page.

Bonneville and Hawes gel convincingly with young co-stars Ewart and Jonsson while Outlander hunk Heughan makes fleeting appearances to replay the bus station sequence from Hud that would earn Neal her Academy Award for Best Actress.

Hay's handsomely mounted film may be too restrained and delicate to compete for its own polished golden statuette but there is undeniable power in some of the carefully chosen words.

Rating: 7/10

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