Another biography of a literature world's luminary from UK director Brian Gilbert (WILDE 1997), TOM & VIV is about the perturbed marriage between American poet T.S. Eliot (Dafoe), and his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood (Richardson), which lasts for 17 years from 1915 to 1932 (separated but never divorced).
It is a refined British period drama, in quaint but steadfast pace, a flamboyant Viv attracts the young poet, the passion speeds them up to elope, but Maurice (Dutton), Viv's younger brother, implicitly hints to Tom, there is something wrong with Viv, a physical ailment or something like that, but, it is rather too embarrassed to say it loud. If we are not familiar with their story, it is quite a challenge to conjecture what's the problem through the movie's oblique approach, Viv is shown to buy some highly contentious medicines in the pharmacy and Tom is clearly in a shock after their (first) lovemaking, and what we see is a blood-stained white bed sheet. They reconciles anyway, and Viv is fervently supportively to Tom's work, to him, she is a great helper and a significant influence.
But Viv suffers from frequent mood swings, due to her irregular menstruation (talking about a corporeal condition aggravates into a mental disorder), an irrevocable chasm is developing through time, when fame catches up with Tom but Viv's bouts of improprieties in the social activities greatly embarrass him. Their mutual effort of love and support is being put to test, and Tom finds solace in Catholic church and grows distant towards Viv, which puts her through the wringer of abandonment and isolation, she becomes a black sheep in her family and her behaviours grows ever more erratic and even dangerous, an institution becomes her only final home.
Never a daft gal, Viv has always been sharp-minded and opinionated, she is no Sloane Ranger either, born with a silver spoon but she makes no fuss to marry her impecunious husband and live with him in a small attic, but the incurable health problem distresses her, shames her and Tom is her sole hope and crutch, when he finally capitulates, Viv rationally opts for her own destiny. Miranda Richardson is meritoriously nominated for an Oscar for her incredible work, to interpret Viv's "moral insanity" with attention-absorbing flair and eccentric mannerism, unpredictable as a time-bomb which is ready to explode at any time, but also poignantly reflects her powerlessness out of her seemingly arbitrary spasms of hysteria.
Willem Dafoe is in his most restrained fashion to portray Tom with an intellectual's unfathomable nature, his soft-spoken delivery obscures the distinction between a tender mercy and a devoted lover, contrary to Viv, his suffering is latent, his final look is frosty and inaccessible, after we learn about Viv's situations, the stance of Gilbert and playwright Michael Hasting on this tragic relationship is fairly manifest. Rosemary Harris, also seizes an Oscar nomination for playing Viv's mother Rose, imbues a sedate facade of dignity from a genteel matron, apart from her immaculate enunciation, her gaze at Viv compellingly evinces affection and disappointment in unison.
At the end of the day, TOM & VIV doesn't disappoint (apart from the pungent whiff of the typical British self-esteem), Gilbert dissects a problematic relationship pickle with its unobtrusive scalpel, a slow-burner worthy the investment of your time, whether or not you are au fait with T.S. Eliot.