The legacy of Welsh born author Roald Dahl is something of a complicated tale, depending on which direction you wish to approach it. On the one side, the acclaimed author, poet, and screenwriter was responsible for some of the most inventive, complex modern fables of our time with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Witches continually reinterpreted and rebooted as stalwarts of modern pop-culture. While on the other hand, Dahl himself was renowned as a difficult, manipulative, anti-social pariah of the English establishment, who often courted him at their own peril.
But regardless of Dahl’s perceived contributions to literature or literary society, the facts of his life leave little room for debate, often touching on the extraordinary – from his days as a WWII fighter pilot and intelligence officer, to penning scripts for Ian Fleming’s Bond adventure You Only Live Twice and classic fable Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and the tragic, with Dahl suffering the loss of his beloved daughter, Olivia before having his legacy criticised as racist, antisemitic and misogynistic posthumously.
Yet, with Dahl presenting as such layered and intriguing character, whose influence remains central to the Hollywood creative output, it seems like an oversight that man himself hasn’t been bought to screen more often. And the few times Dahl has been portrayed on screen, its often as a support character to other central figures. However, a new film from writer director John Hay seeks to remedy the situation with poignant and emotionally charged To Olivia, a title that reference the demise of Dahl’s seven-year-old daughter to complication arising from the measles.
Based on the biography Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, from acclaimed Hollywood historian Stephen Michael Shearer, To Olivia chronicles what is arguably one of the darkest periods of Dahl’s life, as the overwhelming grief of losing his child fractures his marriage with the Oscar winning actress Patricia Neal (Hud, 1963). Taking on the challenging role of bringing an emotionally damaged Dahl to the screen is Hugh Bonneville, best known of late for his commanding role of Robert Crawley in the popular Downton Abbey franchise, but whose stellar career also includes supporting roles in Notting Hill, Burk and Hare, Monuments Men and the surprise 2014 box-office hit Paddington and its subsequent sequel.
“Well, it’s interesting.” Explains Bonneville, informally clad in a distressed union jack t-shirt, and sporting a charmingly casual tone that would leave most of his onscreen personas frowning with consternate disapproval. “John Hay, who co-wrote and directed For Olivia, he sent me the treatment several years ago, and it was originally going to be in a strand of tiny little biopic features on a very minor channel here in the UK. And I said, “It just strikes me that this is a much bigger story. The themes of it seem so much more universal than just being a specific little corner of a man’s life, of this couple’s life.” This is a proper navigation of a profound experience that millions of us go through, what every human being goes through in some way, shape or form of grief. And I think there’s a bigger tapestry to sew. So after several years of shenanigans, which always happens with small independent movies regardless, we finally got there.”
Although no stranger to taking on diverse roles and breathing life into wonderfully eclectic characters, Bonneville admits that his understanding of Roald Dahl, beyond the history books and the authors own published works, was superficial at best when the idea of portraying the author arose. But as he researched the man behind the folklore, the portrait he saw coalescing before him was one of contradiction, complexity, and deep trauma. And ultimately, as Bonneville explains, Dahl’s world became a deeply human experience; a profoundly secluded life lived within public view.
“As a kid I’d read a couple of the books and as a teenager I loved his slightly dark, short stories and so on, but I didn’t know anything about the man.” Elabortes Bonneville “So obviously I began to read his autobiographical works Boy, Solo, his memoirs, letters to his mom and all that. Eventually you begin to get a picture from his subjective point of view. Then you start reading more biographies.
“And then the book on which the film is based, [Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life] which is essentially a book about Patricia. You really begin to see a more 360 picture of a man who is cantankerous, spiky, volatile. Perhaps not the best dinner party guest because he could be quite explosive or rather would just let off little grenades to see how people react.
“A difficult man but a great father. So massive contradictions. He was a family man in the sense that he took great pride in taking his kids to school in the morning. Then he’d go into the little haven of his yellow hut and write for two hours, have lunch, two more hours, pick up the kids, and then have a good bottle of wine in the evenings.
“On the one hand, he was a family man, on the other hand, a cantankerous man. Difficult to live with I’m sure, explosive of temper sometimes. And yet when grief and tragedy struck, as it had done previously in their life, their son Theo had a devastating accident in New York, and yet he didn’t sit back and sort of let the doctors get on with it. He was in there and famously created or helped to create a valve, because Theo had had a brain injury. This valve would become a recognized medical instrument to relieve pressure on the brain.
“Even when, after the end of our story, Patricia had a stroke he was very instrumental in bringing her back to her speech, back to life through a very sort of tough program, which was considered quite brutal by some, but actually then went on to be seen as a very useful therapy. And then of course, they both became very passionate advocates of the vaccine program for measles. So, in a man of huge contradictions and great imagination and talent, he was ultimately a father and a husband, and this little film tracks some of those parts.”
Marking one of Bonnevilles most emotional performance to date, the London born actor brings a sense of gravity to his portrayal of Roald Dahl that is both earnest and compassionate, infusing the volatile author with a droll charm that effectively allows the audience to navigate his emotional instability. Hinting at a far deeper melancholic depression and mania than those recorded in the history books; cascading afflictions that would have been left undiagnosed, and mostly untreated during the films early 1960s setting.
“I think depression strike so many of us in different ways and to different degrees. And the journey of grief is, again, something that every human being will recognize to different degrees. It’s like fader is on a mixing desk. Some people go up to a big 10 at those points in their lives, or maybe they just go to a five or whatever. But no one has it exactly the same way or at exactly the same time.
“With Roald, John and his co-writer [David Logan] charted it in a very clear way that the elements of anger and self-doubt and ‘what if I’d done this’ and then becoming catatonic, unable to function.
“There’s a heartbreaking little sequence where Roald – who was known as the king of breakfast as he loved cooking the breakfast for the family and that sort of thing – he gets to a point where he can’t function anymore and just goes to bed, leaving his very young children in the kitchen with a boiling pan on a gas stove. You can sort of see disaster looming, but he can’t cope. He’s just not able to function.
“I found it very recognizable, having had grief with the loss in my own family, my parents and a brother. Sometimes the memory of someone, or an incident or a memory that you have with someone can bring on a great warmth, and then the next week, you might think of the same moment and just be in vale of tears. And while To Olivia does focus perhaps more on Roald’s journey through that, the ebb and flow of depression and the reaction to grief. There’s no doubt that obviously Patricia experienced it as well.”
Playing opposite Bonneville as the formable Hollywood icon Patricia Neal (Breakfast at Tiffanys, The Day The Earth Stood Still) is Keeley Hawes, one of the UK’s finest character actors whose resume includes the like of High-Rise, Death at a Funeral and Ben Wheatly’s 2020 thriller Rebecca, originally adapted and directed for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock.
Sporting an American accent throughout the film, Hawes offers an effective counterpoint as Neal to Dahl’s unhinged antics. No small feat as Neal struggles with her own insecurities as a Hollywood actress considered to be past her prime, while being acutely aware that living in a remote English hamlet has her isolated from the industry that defined her career.
With the role initially offered to Sarah Ferguson, who had to leave the project due to scheduling conflicts, Bonneville has nothing but praise for Keely Hawes ability to step-up to, own, and deliver an exceptionally layered character study of Patricia Neal, capturing both the mother, wife and Hollywood icon with a bespoke authenticity.
“We had zero rehearsal for a few various reasons.” Offers Bonneville with genuine admiration “She is probably the busiest actress in Britain. We were incredibly lucky that she could spare the time to come and come and work with us.
“As mentioned, I’d been working on this with John Hay for many years, and we’d been on the runway once or twice, and then had to taxi back to the aircraft hangar. And then finally, when Keeley came on board, we rode to take off. So she was, I thought, utterly brilliant in the role.
“Patricia was far more well-known on the public stage than Roald was at the time of our story. James and the Giant Peach did not really resonated that much with readers. And yet she had become a Broadway success and was being courted by Hollywood. And so there was certainly a bit of professional envy from Roald. And yet, she was also a devoted mum, just as he was a devoted dad. But I think that mixture of the public and the private is quite interesting, as is the tension between their own professions.
“And obviously, without ever impersonating, Keeley has this wonderful echo of this striking woman that Patricia was, and her accent, I thought was so spot-on. She captures the essence of this star who is also a mum, which is what Keeley is as well.
Finally, having walked in the shoes of Roald Dahl for the films protracted journey to the screen, not to mention sporting the thinning hair and permanent scowl etched across his Dahlwinian posture, Bonneville’s evolved comprehension of the man, husband, father and celebrity remains respectful and humbled in his modest opinion. But the Paddington actor has no illusion that Dahl would share, or reciprocate the admiration.
“I think he’d find me and a bit of irritating meat that he could chew and spit out, as I think he did many people.” He laughs “I think he had a strong opinion of his own value. And I think he had, if I can put it this way, a bit of a chip on his should shoulder that he wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved, and that the writing that he was doing was not being recognized. And that he felt that the establishment looked down on a children’s author.”
“I know his talent and his imagination and his legacy as a writer are indisputable. I think as a man though, to be really honest, I don’t know how much pleasure we’d have in each other’s company. Can I put it that way?
“But then, surprisingly, I’ve just been going through some old scrapbooks for various reasons. And I found a letter from him! I had no memory of writing to him. But it must have been during the ’80s. And I don’t know what I’d written to him about, but he wrote back, just one or two lines saying, “Thank you for your letter. It’s nice to hear from you,” sort of thing.
“So on the one hand, there’s a guy who sort of finds interacting with the public a bit of a nuisance. But then he’s also a guy who will write back to some pipsqueak and say ‘thanks’ to your letter. So you balance it out.”