The unbearable grief of losing a child is a difficult subject for any movie to encompass – and it defeats this decently acted but syrupy, glib drama about the early married life of movie star Patricia Neal and children’s author Roald Dahl, whose seven-year-old daughter Olivia died in 1962 of encephalitis due to measles. Despite the best intentions, To Olivia winds up creating a carpet of eggshells for its audience to walk across.
The film suggests the family were brought closer together by this catastrophe, resulting in Neal gaining new emotional intelligence for her acting and Dahl being able to accept creative comments on his work from his family, and so getting crucial improvements for his 1964 hit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Maybe – or perhaps Olivia’s death was an agony that everyone simply had to live with and live through, and one that may have accelerated Dahl’s existing slide towards cantankerous bigotry.
It did have one actual result: Dahl later became a powerful campaigner for vaccination. In 1962, there was no vaccine for measles, a fact mentioned in the postscript. (Maybe it is not too late to enlist Dahl’s support against the insidious anti-vaxxers: every Dahl book or movie should come displayed with Dahl’s vaccination message.)
Keeley Hawes plays Neal, the glamorous star content to live in a rambling house in the chilly English countryside, cheerfully putting up with her moody and mercurial husband, who indulges the children with flights of fancy when he’s not grumpily putting away the scotch in his writing den. Dahl is affectionately played by Hugh Bonneville, and inevitably makes Dahl more attractive and personable than was the case. Then the unspeakable tragedy happens; Dahl retreats into misery, unable even to say Olivia’s name, and the increasingly lonely and alienated Neal fatefully decides to head out to Hollywood to act in the western drama Hud, opposite Paul Newman.
This film comes to life in the two scenes when its hushed note of kindly reverence is broken. Neal and Dahl go for spiritual succour to his old headteacher, Geoffrey Fisher, the archbishop of Canterbury – fiercely played by Geoffrey Palmer in his final film role. Fisher’s blithering, pompous nonsense about animals not being allowed in the kingdom of heaven enrages them both. Then later, when Neal meets Newman (Sam Heughan), he coolly declines to engage in the ashen-faced condolences.
There is no real howl of pain of the kind that we had in, say in the 1993 movie, Shadowlands about the personal grief of CS Lewis. To Olivia is cushioned by its own carefully managed good taste.
• Released on 19 February on Sky Cinema.