‘To Olivia’ Summary & Review – A Glimpse Into Roald Dahl’s Tragic Loss


In theatre hierarchy, dramatic actors are often considered superior to their comical subordinates. Similarly, in literature, often children’s book writers are looked upon as architects of a low tower. Well, it’s a general perception and not an opinion. A similar opinion begins the film, To Olivia, which focuses on the life of celebrated children’s writer, Roald Dahl and his relationship with American beauty and talented actress, Patricia Neal.

Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal lived in a Gypsy House on a farm, away from the city’s busyness and complications. Yet, their life wasn’t spared of tragedy. In 1962, the couple had 3 children, two girls, and one boy. The middle daughter, Olivia Twenty Dahl is the center of conflict in the film. At the early age of 7, Olivia left the family and died from Encephalitis caused by an unrecognized measles infection.

Olivia’s absence caused devastating consequences upon the family, prominently on the parents’ relationship. Roald Dahl didn’t cry after his favorite daughter left him. He wasn’t able to concentrate on his work either and the feeling of despair made him weak and agitated. The loss soon spread on his relationship he shared with his wife and other two children, which the film explores further.

Hugh Bonneville who plays Roald Dahl on-screen does justice to the simplicity and humor of one of the greatest children writers of the century. He is able to enact the same innocence that was visibly felt in Dahl’s writing like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Through the character, the film also successfully underlines Dahl’s imaginative experiences and emotional breakdowns that became instrumental in his fantastical writing style. At most intervals, he might be looking for an imaginative outlet from the cruel reality. In many of his works, he took inspiration from his late daughter Olivia, so as to pay her the necessary tribute. If you happen to see Matilda, you might find Dahl’s Olivia. Keeley Hawes as Patricia Neal has performed the part with sincerity and passion. The sense of doubt and tragedy was subtle visible on her face, and her pursuit to hide it from Dahl was expressively impressive.

The film runs at a slow and simple pace, without any hurried moments. However, we viewers might also find this subtle pace, bit boring, depending on their goldfish attention span.

Screenwriters John Hay and David Logan have taken snippets for the movie from Stephen Michael Shearer’s novel, Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life. And it does justice to the novel by capturing an equal Neal’s struggle throughout the film. The writing never lets the famous writer become the center of attraction and often the conflict circles them as a couple, rather than as individuals. In brief, it tries to underline that Roald Dahl would be anyone else and still would have had the same suffering. Life doesn’t differentiate.

To Olivia concludes with a very moving message that it’s an artist’s duty to suffer and yet make art so that he leaves a better world after him. A normal person could drown in despair and misery but not an artist. It’s both a boon and curse, but like I believe, art never chooses a person, a person chooses art and that sums it all.

At the time of Olivia’s death, there were no vaccines available for measles in England. Patricia and Roald actively supported a campaign to immunize children throughout the country. They didn’t feel despair, they fought back and inspired.

The film, indeed, puts up a smile on one’s face after following Dahl’s personal tragedy, and thus, I’ll highly recommend it. Please be aware, it is a sweet, simple drama and might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Thus, make your choices accordingly.

To Olivia is a real-life story based on the tragedy suffered by celebrated writer Roald Dahl and his wife, Patricia Neal. The film is directed by John Hay. It is streaming on Sky TV.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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