Though famed for creating comedic and peculiar worlds for children across
the world, the darker shades of Roald Dahl’s life often seeped into his
pages. As detailed in his autobiographical works Boy and Going Solo, his
time as a fighter-pilot, coupled with a burgeoning alcohol problem, ensured
he ran against the clean-cut image often associated with childrens’
In-keeping with this, To Olivia picks a particularly formative, devastating
time in Dahl’s familial life, and cleverly observes the clash between
Dahl’s real and fictional worlds.
Set before the world-wide acclaim which would greet Dahl (Hugh Bonneville)
in the wake of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, The BFG and Matilda, the
family is nevertheless illuminated by the stardom of Dahl’s wife, Hollywood actor
Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes). But soon after the film begins, their quaint
and quiet life in the Buckinghamshire countryside is punctured
devastatingly by the sudden death of the pair’s eldest daughter, Olivia
Twenty Dahl, to encephalitis.
As shown through the film’s postscript, Olivia’s death compelled Roald and
Patricia to campaign in favour of the measles vaccination for the remainder
of their lives. This compulsion was shown through Dahl’s searing open
letter for the Sandwell Health Authority, entitled ‘Measles: A Dangerous
Illness’ in 1986, in which he recounts the rapid and devastating death of
his eldest child, and implores parents to vaccinate their children. In the
current public health climate, Dahl’s words have perhaps never felt more
What follows in To Olivia is a family attempting to come to terms with
their loss. While the pent up emotion causes Dahl to lash out, Neal is
forced to hold things together for the sake of the wider family. Given the
enormous strain placed on his wife and his own truculence, it is difficult
to empathise with Dahl – despite Bonneville’s efforts – and the film does
well to highlight the negative impact this wallowing is having.
The film is effectively a two-hander, with both Hawes and Bonneville
anchoring the story. Hawes gives Neal an urbane, effortless touch, but
skillfully ramps the emotion up during the film’s narrative pinch points.
Meanwhile Bonneville balances Dahl’s inherent playfulness with his acerbic,
capricious anger. Despite the sensitive subject matter, there are few
explosive scenes; instead, the film is a selection of understated
This measured approach makes To Olivia feel quite safe, and the film’s
narrative tensions – from the couples’ grief through to their shared career
frustrations – are remedied a shade too quickly. Indeed, the whole trip to
Hollywood is packaged a bit too neatly, even if we do gain two charismatic
turns from Conleth Hill and Sam Heughan. Additionally, while many of the
performances are muted, the score occasionally strays into being
But the point the film is arguably making is that loss and grief are things
which are dealt with on a day-to-day basis, and can’t be dealt with through
continual, explosive arguments. As Dahl alludes to, it is often the words
left unsaid which are the most important. The film’s sense that life simply
has to go on despite tragedy is occasionally poignant, even if more time
could’ve been spent unpicking this.
To Olivia is out today on SKY.