In the wake of the critical and commercial success of Merchant Ivory’s productions of A Room With A View and Howard’s End came a number of not so fantastic imitators. One such an imitator was the film Tom & Viv (1994), which followed the relationship between T.S. Eliot and his wife Viv from courtship until her death in 1956. Like the Merchant Ivory films before it, Tom & Viv is a drama of manners, set primarily around WWI. However, Tom & Viv lack the tedious pacing and attention to character that James Ivory so readily supplies his films with. Instead, in the hands of director Brian Gilbert (Vice Versa), Tom & Viv relies all too heavily on archetype and cliché, establishing narrative shorthand to make the film’s narrative more accessible to audiences.
Viv is famous in the literary world for her mild insanity, inhibiting her husband’s career at every turn. Though Miranda Richardson seems at home enacting manic outbursts and violent episodes, her character is devoid of any relatable substance. Therefore, the film must rely on Willem Dafoe’s turn as T.S. Eliot to inform the audience of the gravitas of Viv’s actions, and to imbue to film with palatable emotion. Luckily, Dafoe is up to the task, turning in what is most likely the understated performance of his career. Employing primarily the subtle nuance of his facial expressions, Dafoe emotes true passion and embarrassment toward Richardson.
Sadly, the problems in the film derive from an uneven and overly dramatic screenplay that doesn’t leave any room for Richardson to perform the same feats as her male co-star. Instead she has to make due with a part that consists mostly of shouting and laughing like a maniac. Those characters that surround the couple are further relegated to simple caricatures. This is where Gilbert’s film departs most dramatically from the Merchant Ivory productions, which he seems to be imitating. From Remains of The Day to Maurice, the Merchant Ivory films of this time are rich with secondary characters that exhibit multiple dimensions and thought out personalities. To counter this, the editing in Tom & Viv is episodic, stringing scenes together with musically driven montages whose only emotional content is derived from the film’s pretentiously sentimental soundtrack.
It may sound like I’m being too hard on this film. It’s certainly worth seeing if you’re a fan of Willem Dafoe. If you’re a bigger fan of British films overall, you’ll be gravely disappointed.