Passion of only the driest and most cerebral kind peeks through the lace curtains of "Tom & Viv," a handsomely appointed but overly starchy love story that attains real clout only in the final reel.

Passion of only the driest and most cerebral kind peeks through the lace curtains of “Tom & Viv,” a handsomely appointed but overly starchy love story that attains real clout only in the final reel. Intense but tight-jawed playing by Willem Dafoe as Yank poet T.S. Eliot and an eccentric perf by Miranda Richardson that doesn’t jell until its latter stages mark this as a well-meaning but noble failure. Opening today in the U.K., pic is slated for U.S. release via Miramax in the fall.

Commercially, this looks to be a tricky proposition. Besides the “Tom & Viv … who?” problem, and a script that makes only fleeting reference to Eliot’s most famous work, “The Waste Land,” about halfway in, this is a small-scale drama at heart, despite the well-laundered period look and occasional larger set pieces. The two-hours-plus study of a doomed love affair between a highly refined poet and an all-out nut will need terrific reviews to break out beyond arty venues.

Michael Hastings’ original play started life at London’s Royal Court Theater in February 1984, with Julie Covington and Tom Wilkinson in the leads. Covington also toplined the March 1985 revival. In December 1992, the play was broadcast by BBC Radio 3, with Richardson bowing as Viv and John Duttine as Tom.

Co-scripters Hastings and Adrian Hodges have done a fine job opening up the action without diluting the intensity of individual scenes. Tale opens in 1914, with spoiled socialite Vivienne Haigh-Wood (Richardson) visiting Merton College, Oxford, with her soppy brother, Maurice (Tim Dutton), to see American student Tom Eliot (Dafoe). We immediately know she’s one sandwich short of a picnic when she blithely dances on the college lawns.

Following a whirlwind affair, the couple marry and honeymoon in the southern coastal resort of Eastbourne. But Viv’s wild mood swings, not helped by her strange collection of medicines, lead to her wrecking the room and breaking down.

In London, the impecunious couple share a flat with Tom’s friend, Bertrand Russell (Nickolas Grace). Tom is accepted (just) by Viv’s snooty parents, while her own behavioral changes are diagnosed incorrectly and treated with yet more medication. Her sudden outbursts against her husband continue, however, even in public orwhen with friends.

After taking a job at a bank, Tom begins establishing himself as a poet, and later secures a position at publisher Faber & Faber. Viv, however, is going from bad to worse, one day pouring melted chocolate through the firm’s mailbox. Warned by a medic that his wife won’t get any better, Tom finally has her committed to an asylum.

Ten years later, unvisited by Tom, she still speaks lovingly of him. Her condition is finally diagnosed by an American researcher as a hormonal imbalance triggered by her menstrual cycle.

Possibly taking its cue from Eliot’s own works, there’s an almost academic quality to the film that robs it early on of any believable passion. From the first of Viv’s attacks, pic essentially becomes a catalog of her breakdowns and public embarrassments, with Tom an increasingly clench-jawed bystander.

With little feel for Eliot’s growing rep as a poet — we hear about his career, but rarely witness its benefits — it’s hard to get a handle on Viv’s obsessive belief in his talent. Even the first reading en famille of “The Waste Land” is deployed more as a podium for Viv’s instability than a demonstration of Eliot’s artistic gifts.

Such a controlled approach might have worked if the two leads had any onscreen chemistry; but at times, it’s as if Dafoe and Richardson were acting in different movies. Brit director Brian Gilbert holds his thesps on a tight rein.

Adopting a semi-strangled accent clearly modeled on Eliot’s own recordings (but not necessarily reflecting the poet’s everyday voice), Dafoe gives one of his most desiccated, emotionally withdrawn performances. There’s a power and a concentration here that works splendidly in close-ups and solo turns, but there’s little emotional arcing when anyone else is around.

Richardson’s performance is even more eccentric, with a seemingly deliberate decision to play Viv’s mood swings in a semi-comedic vein. For the actress who made such subtle nuances of expression work in “Damage” and “Century,” the impulse to play Viv as a ’20s airhead seems inexplicable.

Still, if her histrionic breakdowns don’t work on a dramatic level, Richardson comes through later in spades, beginning with a wonderfully subtle scene of her deliberately giving the wrong answer to the docs’ questions when she sees in Dafoe’s eyes that the marriage is over. In her final scenes, in superb, measured dialogue describing Viv’s love for Eliot, Richardson gives a glimpse of the emotion “Tom & Viv” attempts to describe but which remains out of reach.

Other performances are reliable, and tech credits throughout are good, with detailed (but un-lived-in) costuming by Phoebe De Gaye, ditto production design by Jamie Leonard, fine widescreen exterior lensing by Martin Fuhrer and pungent use of Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” and Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” on the soundtrack.

Tom & Viv

British-U.S.

Production

An Entertainment Film Distributors (U.K.)/Miramax (U.S.) release of a Samuelson Prods./Harvey Kass/IRS Media production, with participation of British Screen. (International sales: Samuelson, London.) Produced by Marc Samuelson, Harvey Kass, Peter Samuelson. Executive producers, Miles A. Copeland III, Paul Colichman. Line producer, John Kay. Directed by Brian Gilbert. Screenplay, Michael Hastings, Adrian Hodges, from the play by Hastings.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Martin Fuhrer; editor, Tony Lawson; music, Debbie Wiseman; production design, Jamie Leonard; art direction, Mark Raggett; costume design, Phoebe De Gaye; sound (Dolby), Peter Glossop; assistant director, Sean Guest; makeup, Morag Ross; casting (U.K.), Michelle Guish. Reviewed at Plaza 1 Cinema, London, Jan. 25, 1994. Running time: 125 min.

With

Tom Eliot - Willem Dafoe Vivienne Haigh-Wood - Miranda Richardson Viv's mother - Rosemary Harris Viv's brother, Maurice - Tim Dutton Berty - Nickolas Grace Viv's father - Philip Locke
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