The 73rd Virgin says... This is based on a play and as best as I can tell it plays fast and loose with the facts, or at least the timeline of events. It is often quite pretty to look at, and has at least some humorous dialog, but it is very slow and even in pacing, and the main characters are far from lovable. It grossed less than $600,000 in the U.S., even with Oscar-nominated performances from Miranda Richardson and Rosemary Harris.
Thomas Stearns Eliot wants to be British despite his St. Louis, Missouri birth and attendance at Harvard. While studying at Oxford he meets Vivienne Haigh-Wood who is the only daughter of wealthy landed gentry. Over the gentle warnings of her brother, Maurice to, “be kind to Vivienne”, and the belated objections of her parents, they marry too young, and only on his virginal wedding night does Tom discover that normal sexual relations are going to be unlikely and infrequent.
As you can see from the IMDB description, she suffered from what would nowadays probably be a treatable hormonal imbalance. She’s also bipolar and prone to spinning out of control verbally and emotionally at unseemly moments, in a society that never found it charming. Viv also develops a friendship with an easily lead pharmacist who kindly supplies her with concoctions that are as much as 60% ether.
All that being said, this movie supports the notion that Viv served to some extent as Eliot’s muse. In one of the better scenes they sit down to read aloud to her family an early draft of The Waste Land, with the nice historical detail that it was originally entitled, “He Do the Police In Different Voices”. She is more nervous than he and as the reading progresses, Viv’s mother realizes with a sense of betrayal that the lines come from the Eliots’ lives.
So with these scenes to cement the notion of Viv as a valued helpmate, what’s left is to track her long slow decline into what is perceived to be madness or “moral insanity” and the disintegration of the marriage. There are sidetracks into the possibility that she has had an affair with the slippery Bertrand Russell who was a family friend. The historical question remains open to the extent that anyone cares anymore.
I’m not the first reviewer to observe that at the center of the story falls the vacuum, that is, Eliot. The play is really about Viv and her brother with a slight bias towards her brother’s version of events. The film is dedicated to them. And Richardson is so convincing as this out of control personality that we lose track of Eliot’s stifled personality and motivations. His strongest desire aside from being English is to live the quietest life possible in order for his poetic voice to flourish, and that would be a neat trick while sharing a life with someone like Viv.
Eliot was also fumbling toward joining the Church of England, partly out of desperation. As his fame as a poet grows, he becomes a more attractive target, even receiving visits from the Bishop.
Willem Dafoe is fine of course. He has played everyone from Jesus to murderous villains to saintly soldiers to Time Itself, so we can hardly accuse him of not taking chances. He was born to play this. He comes by Eliot’s somewhat spidery countenance naturally, and his voice and accent are perfect. Harris and Richardson are amazing throughout.
Viv eventually becomes so erratic that Eliot accepts a teaching position back in America for a year and they officially separate. The script is overly obscure here, as if everyone should know the timeline from high school English or something. In another good scene, after her father dies, Eliot and Maurice conspire to keep Viv out of the trust that administers the estate.
Maurice has become a man of The Empire, heading off to Africa after WWI, rejoining the regiment for WWII, and eventually becoming police chief of Lagos, Nigeria. He has always stood up for Viv, but behavior like this finally turns him against her continued freedom:
Forcibly institutionalized and perhaps stabilized by some postwar pharmaceutical advances in hormone therapy, Viv is presented to us in the end as a quiet, self-possessed asylum inmate who hasn’t heard from her husband in 10 years. She is still tragically in love with him.
Ageless Bertrand Russell is brought back for the somber coda. He either posits a question, “she is well, Tom?”, or makes a statement, “she is well, Tom”, and Eliot is painted as a bitter husband who uses his wife’s money to pay for her own institutionalization, until her death in 1947.
Again, this is a play, and I suspect the story is much more complicated than this. The briefest stroll through Wikipedia confirms it. She had problems beyond menstrual cycles. Per Virginia Woolf:
“Oh—Vivienne! Was there ever such a torture since life began!—to bear her on one's shoulders, biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity, reading his letters, thrusting herself on us, coming in wavering trembling ... This bag of ferrets is what Tom [Eliot] wears round his neck.”Since there is a copy of The Waste Land draft that is annotated in Ezra Pound’s hand, a few historians have dismissed Viv’s importance. For what it’s worth, Eliot did not remarry until ten years after her death.
You may have guessed that I’m a bit of an Eliot taster-snob, and I really wanted to like this. Despite the great acting it’s only passable as history, and only passable as British drama, and hardly a chick flick. Perhaps the poet who said a poem was “not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion”, would be impossible to live with and impossible to dramatize.
During World War II the BBC taped many radio broadcasts of luminaries of English literature and thought; C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot among them. Obviously, he wasn’t the first celebrity poet but it says something about the time that work as obscure and challenging as this could’ve ever been packaged up and delivered to the masses with the full expectation that they would admire it. Times change.
Thanks to BBC and his willingness to be a star up until his death in 1965, there is a large store of Eliot reading his own poetry in his crisp, saturnine voice. Since he probably never wrote a poem with predictable rhyming patterns, it is valuable to hear him interpret his own work. HarperCollins audio has allowed a large part of their audio material to exist on the Internet for access. A huge cultural gift.
Rosemary Harris would later star as Spiderman's kindly Aunt May.