FILM REVIEWS / A rhyme short of a couplet: Sheila Johnston sees T S Eliot portrayed as neither victim nor villain in Tom and Viv; plus Irish intrigue in Widows' Peak

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Among Oxford's dreaming spires, it appears, there is a mighty throng of bookish, buttoned-up male writers awaiting the blessed touch of outrageous women. After C S Lewis in Shadowlands, T S Eliot (are those enigmatic initials the sign of a secretive personality?) in Tom and Viv (15), which tells of Eliot's first marriage, a union which brought both partners near to destruction, but which also inspired The Waste Land and T S Eliot's finest work.

The echoes of the earlier film are striking: each has an American protagonist - so convenient, indeed so crucial for that transatlantic sale. And each time, the woman, a formidable literary talent in her own right, comes out of it more than rather badly: Joy Gresham dies at the end of Shadowlands while, in Tom and Viv, Vivienne is forcibly committed to a mental asylum where she dies, lonely and forgotten, nine years later. The film concludes with a clumsy, contrived matching cut between the gate of the hospital shutting, and, someplace far away, a lift grille opening with a dull clank across Tom's face. One door closes, another opens . . . the final titles tell us that, one year later T S Eliot won the Nobel Prize: in his beginning is her end.

At first it looks as if Tom and Viv intends to take a feminist tack. 'It raises very strong issues about how society treats women,' says Dafoe; 'I'm sure there will be a great empathy among women for Viv's plight,' says Tim Dutton, who plays Viv's brother Maurice; 'perhaps the major theme of the film is the behaviour that is tolerated from a man is often not tolerated from a woman' (Marc Samuelson, the co-producer).

The particularly gynaecological nature of Viv's complaint seems to underline this - her erratic behaviour is fuelled by a hormonal imbalance and an irregular menstrual cycle (we learn an old-fashioned euphemism for periods, the engaging but somehow slightly inappropriate, 'How often is granny visiting you?').

And it was exacerbated by cocktails prescribed by clueless doctors: Brian Gilbert directs with a heavy hand and many a looming close-up of the fatal concoctions. It's a little pat to suggest Viv's problems could be explained away so easily, but it allows the viewer to reflect with relief and complacency that, today, we're so much more enlightened and the marvels of modern medicine would have set her right in a jiffy.

But the film (co-scripted by Michael Hastings from his own play) also wants to avoid taking sides in the battle of the sexes - or, more likely, to avoid further skirmishes with Faber & Faber, the poet's publishers, and Eliot's widow and second wife Valerie, who have not been best pleased at the prospect of Eliot on trial. And so it ends up scrupulously mealy-mouthed, at the expense of the big, juicy dramatic moment: Dafoe gives an interesting, coiled-spring performance, but his character is a cipher, where you want either a villain - a man who, unable to divorce the woman who had become a social embarrassment, ruthlessly locked her away - or a victim, a man driven to the edge of insanity by his batty spouse. Old Possum is practically comatose - you're hard-pressed to understand Edith Sitwell's famous barb that 'at some point in their marriage Tom went mad and promptly certified his wife.'

The script is a curious creature. One second Tom claps eyes on Viv for the first time, next thing they're canoodling in a barge - which looks ominously like a coffin. 'How long have Tom and Viv been courting?' someone asks, and is answered, 'Ooooo . . . minutes'. For a longish (125 minutes) film, there's a peculiar, breathless sense of time speeding up and careering out of control, especially in the latter section.

Suddenly Tom's no longer a nondescript bowler-hatted banker but the latest toast of London's literary set, and then suddenly he has spent a year off at Harvard, and suddenly Viv's father has died and all her money is in a trust administered by her family; and then they are legally separated, and now she's in the mental asylum, has gone through an early menopause and is quite, quite sane.

Where, one asks, are all the bits between these suddenly's? An amount of telescoping is inevitable in a story which spans 32 years, but you are left with the feeling that the film has cunningly leapfrogged over key events you would have liked to see.

I'd have liked to see more about Eliot's growth as a poet. This, to be fair, is the hardest thing in the world to bring off convincingly: much better directors than Brian Gilbert (Wim Wenders with Hammett, David Cronenberg with The Naked Lunch, Bertolucci with The Sheltering Sky) have stubbed their toes in the attempt to put writing on screen. Shadowlands gets away with it by not dwelling too long on Lewis's work, but the core of Tom and Viv is the forming of a great mind.

There's only the vaguest intimation of his poetry, which might have something to do with the reluctance of the estate to allow Hastings to quote from his work. We are just given a little bit from He Do the Police in Different Voices, an early draft of The Waste Land, in whose stuttering, anguished cadences Viv's mother discerns an elegy to the marriage. But apart from being a dark muse whose wildness sharpened the artist's pen, Viv's creative contribution is not clear from the movie. If she actually co-wrote the poems, what happened when they split up?

If anything makes Tom and Viv worth seeing, it is the performances. Dutton is touching as the shy, silly- ass Maurice: the film lacks a big emotional pay-off, Shadowlands- style, but his final meeting with his big sister shortly before her death is tender, poignant and filled with unspoken regrets. Honours also go to Rosemary Harris (as Viv's mother) and Nickolas Grace (as Bertrand Russell) in an excellent cast, but it is Richardson's film.

After exploding on to the screen in her first film, Dance with a Stranger (1985), she has been one of Britain's most scandalously under- used actresses, confined to slightly dull supporting turns in films like Enchanted April, Damage (in which her brief appearance as Irons' wronged wife stood out as the best thing in the movie), The Crying Game and, most recently the disappointing Century. Here is the vehicle she deserves and, though it's early days yet, her mercurial, abrasive, heart-breaking performance should snag her an Oscar nomination.

Widows' Peak (PG) is the jocular name for the smart area of a picture- book pretty Irish village colonised by a gaggle of wealthy widows, pre- eminent among them the doughty Joan Plowright. When Natasha Richardson's sophisticated war widow (the film is set in the 1920s) applies for membership of this exclusive club, they greet her with delight save one: Mia Farrow, who is poor as a church mouse, but, for some mysterious reason, enjoys Plowright's patronage.

She, however, takes a fierce dislike to the interloper, and their enmity escalates into a bitter feud, murder and an unexpected turn of events: the story, by Hugh Leonard, starts off looking for all the world like a trite slice of 'Oirish' whimsy, but meanders onward through a maze of diverting twists. Widows' Peak is chiefly a comedy, and the main weakness is the choice of director - John Irvin - who is best known for action movies and, on this evidence, should stick with them. But it is played with great brio.

(Photograph omitted)

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