Tom (T.S. Eliot) meets debutante Viv while he's at Oxford in 1914. Over a period of 30 years, the film follows their difficult and tempestuous relationship.
Hot on the heels of Shadowlands is another literary love affair, again based on a play, and another addition to the Is It Real Or Is It A Reel Liberty debate?, this time exploring the passion and pain between poet, playwright, publisher, cat lover and Nobel Prize winner T. S. Eliot and his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood.
It's a tortured business, spanning 30 years from the courtship in 1914 of wide-eyed Anglophile at Oxford Tom (Dafoe) and ebullient, vivacious society belle Viv (Richardson) through literary fame (his) and erratic behaviour (hers) to Viv's last years in an asylum in the 30s and 40s. From the spectacularly disastrous night of their elopement, Viv is painted as an exhausting burden to a noble Tom, and one whose wild unpredictability is attributed to mis-diagnosed, misunderstood and wickedly treated hormonal and gynaecological problems so severe they are guaranteed to evoke sympathetic horror in women viewers and make men wish they'd gone to the pub instead.
Dafoe's Tom is a thoughtful and fastidious impression of Eliot down to the accurate, curious, affected accent captured on recordings of the writer, but he's required to make a transformation from sensitive, caring soul to icily cruel monster that is almost beyond comprehension. Richardson, however, is quite extraordinary as the tragic, often loveably demented Viv. There is no one better than this actress at being enchantingly loony, and Viv's ailments, afflictions, passions and PMT provide her with plenty of opportunities to mesmerise in spite of other weaknesses in a film that gives new meaning to the description "period movie".
Richardson is perfect, the settings are beautifully dressed and peopled with extravagant, arch and artistic characters whose significance is often suggested only belatedly in the credits, but it's all rather too complex to take in, as is the blur of passing years.