The Beauty of Restraint: Willem Dafoe’s Brilliant Portrayal of T.S. Eliot in “Tom and Viv”

There are few well-read people today who would not recognize the name T.S. Eliot. Known for his brilliant Modernist poetry, Eliot was also a prominent 20th century critic and playwright. Though his literary accolades spreads far and wide, his personal life remains a complex, overwhelming, and emotional struggle that constantly plagued him and most certainly affected the tone of his work. In the 1994 film “Tom and Viv,” director Brian Gilbert presents us with a window into the complicated personal life of T.S. Eliot. Based on the original play by Michael Hastings, the film tells the grim story of the tragic marriage between Tom (T.S.) Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, spanning the thirty-some years from when the two first met at Oxford in 1915, to Vivienne’s death in 1947. Vivenne, played by Miranda Richardson, initially seems to be the standout actress in the film. Her dynamic, unpredictable, and emotional character simultaneously captures sympathetic yet weary attention, and her Academy Award nomination for the role was not undeserved. However, in comparison, one seems to pass over the spectacular acting by Willem Dafoe, who sharply and sympathetically portrays the difficult character of T.S. Eliot. Dafoe’s depiction of Tom may seem flat, cold, and emotionally lacking, especially in contrast with Richardson’s portrayal of Viv’s character. However, it is exactly that calculated restraint and emotional ineptitude that makes his depiction of the complex poet so brilliant.

Adapted by Michael Hastings and Adrian Hodges from Hastings’ London stage play in 1984, “Tom and Viv” is far from a love story. The beginning seems promising: Tom’s infatuation with Vivienne’s free spirit and vivacity leads to a whirlwind romance and a fervent elopement. The only hint of disaster occurs when Vivienne’s brother Maurice asks Tom whether there is “anything beastly between you and Viv? Nothing in the medical way?” Tom, of course, blind to any of Vivienne’s ailments, misinterprets his brother-in-law’s question, replying “I think I can reassure you on that point, Maurice. I’m perfectly healthy.” Maurice is, of course, referring to the severe hormonal imbalance that Vivienne suffered from, which were deemed “women’s problems” by her doctor, and the reason for her “rebellious disregard for propriety,” which Tom soon discovers soon after their elopement. Viv’s unhealthy combination of medicines, her constant mood swings, and uncontrollable menstrual cycle (all a result of her illness), combined with Tom’s formal, emotionally stunted, and internally tortured manner, prove to be a recipe for ruin. As Vivienne’s condition steadily declines, Tom’s standing as a poet and an intellectual becomes increasingly prestigious. We see less and less interaction between the two, as Tom tries to distance himself from her after multiple warnings of what she’ll do to his reputation. Meanwhile, Vivienne’s antics heighten alongside Eliot’s rising literary clout—we see her insulting Virginia Woolf while sitting just a few seats away from her at the dining table, pouring chocolate sauce into the mail slot of Tom’s workplace, brandishing a rubber knife to women on the street, and even attacking Eliot while driving, forcing the car completely off of the road. Finally, Tom and Maurice make the ultimate decision to commit her to a mental institution, effectively and permanently solidifying the distance between the couple. Tom is left with her estate, her family’s aristocratic connections, and his many literary achievements, while she is left alone to die nine years later, still unrequitedly yearning for a visit from her beloved husband that would never come.

Telling a story like this, in this way, is an ambitious and extremely complex feat, especially given the depth and the filmmakers chosen depiction of the two main characters. Evidently, shortcomings are bound to come with a work as ambitious as this. These shortcoming are certainly are apparent, however, the film’s achievements are essential and must be recognized as well. The film does well to avoid placing blame on neither Tom nor Viv– it leaves the blame ambiguous and unassuming. Their troubles were each clearly very separate, and though we sympathize with the characters at different times, the story does not necessarily take one side or the othe. Instead, it merely shows us the deterioration of a marriage between two very complicated, tortured, and fairly incompatible people. Director Brian Gilbert takes somewhat of a risk in the way that he portrays Tom and Viv. The film doesn’t necessarily follow the industry norm, setting up the characters as artistic icons, showing them living famous, lavish, and great lives. Instead, they are portrayed in a sorrowfully realistic light—both of them miserable, confused, and full of pain. From a more technical perspective, the cinematography is striking, and the setting perfectly and colorfully captures the opulence and appeal of the British aristocratic life that Eliot so desires to be a part of. The dark wood and formal gardens of the Haigh-Wood’s grand country house, which hosts many of the scenes in the film, is beautifully captured, and provides a poignant setting to represent the world that Eliot so desires—even more, it seems, than his own wife. The luxurious and magical settings provide a stark contrast to the harshly realistic depiction of the corrosion of Tom and Viv’s marriage.

Despite the several highlights of Gilbert’s film, it certainly is not the masterpiece that it perhaps could have been, given its potential. There seem to be some holes in the script and the dialogue is fairly stilted—there is silence when words should fill the spaces, and even sometimes when words are spoken, they are fairly dry and unimaginative. Additionally, there is still unspoken information that we are to assume but is in fact difficult to glean. This information does not seem to hold any specific artistic meaning, and merely leaves the actors to try and compensate for the weakness. Moreover, the film tends to drag on, especially towards the end. In a film like this, with the harshly realistic heightened emotional tensions, dragging it on can make the story unnecessarily melancholy and tiresome—one finds themselves fed up, even bored at times. Lastly, a shortcoming that only presents itself to a viewer familiar with Eliot’s life history, but is all the more frustrating, is the glaring omissions of Eliot’s artistic influences. Though Bertrand Russell and a few other Bloomsbury types like Virginia Woolf make brief appearances, the film is noticeably under populated with the many famous names that so influenced Eliot and his work. An argument could be made that it subsequently keeps the focus on Tom and Viv’s marriage, but even that in and of itself represents a disappointing attempt to confine the meaning of The Wasteland into the framework of a failed marriage, which is foolish, and anyone who has read the great poem would recognize that. The fact is that the film fails to accurately portray Vivienne’s role in Tom’s poetry. Vivienne is painted as Eliot’s muse, occasionally peeking over his shoulder, typing up some manuscripts, and boasts that she is the first eyes to see any of her husband’s writing. However, the audience never gets a sense of how powerfully her relationship with Tom, as well as her own writing and ideas, shaped his poetry. Vivienne most certainly gets the short end of the stick. She is also, for the most part, presented as the outrageous and senseless character, even though it is well known that Eliot went through some bizarre and emotional phases as well. We only get small, insignificant hints at Tom’s self-pity, such as the reproduction of “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” that hangs above his desk.

Notwithstanding the limitations that the filmmakers imposed on his character, T.S. Eliot remains a deep, incredibly complex and difficult character. Tom is presented as an intelligent and immobile man with a desire for companionship, yet lacking the emotional capacity to fully understand himself or the people around him. Intriguingly, some of the only real passion we see from him is in his desire to leave his American past behind and become one with the British elite. His demeanor drastically changes, igniting previously hidden emotion when he is among the Haigh-Woods and their aristocratic peers. More passion emerges for Vivienne’s family, their opulent country house, and their lofty social standing than it ever actually does for Vivienne. However, though he may not have explicitly expressed his passion for her, there is no doubt that he did feel real love for Vivienne. Tom clearly struggles throughout the story, constantly torn between his rising literary prestige and the unfortunate reputational affect that Vivienne’s antics reflect on him. He wants to stand by her and take care of her, but in the end, is unable to, as he just does not possess the emotional capacity to deal with the conflict between his chaotic relationship and growing literary career.

The choice of Willem Dafoe to play T.S. Eliot may at first raise a number of questions. The fiery and passionate screen presence that he normally displays in his previous movies seems quite inconsistent with the rigid, cold, and reactive character of Tom in this film. However, all questions and reservations are put to rest within the first opening minutes of the film. For example, to start off, the physical qualities that Dafoe offered perfectly align with Eliot’s character. He actually resembles photographs of the poet, as they both exhibit a sort of gaunt and withdrawn handsomeness. His nose is not quite refined, but it still exemplifies his hawk-like, strained, and tired nature. As the film wears on, Dafoe seems to become increasingly haggard—the gauntness of his features are accentuated as his sunken cheekbones become progressively more pronounced, face becomes more rigid, and eyes become more haunted—all suggesting that his art, his relationship, and his life in general have cost him a part of his humanity. Even Dafoe’s calculated choice in pitch, quality, and tone of voice is flawlessly haunted and droning, while his accent has the forcefulness of an American who desperately wants to be British—together adding to the already large number of physical qualities that made Willem Dafoe an incredible T.S. Eliot.

Though the physical qualities that Dafoe brings to Tom’s character are spectacular, what are even more impressive are the complicated emotional characteristics that he expresses as he portrays Eliot. We have already established the complexity, depth, and difficulty of his character, but the nuanced restraint and calculated reactions that Dafoe brings to the table is truly impressive. When set alongside Miranda Richardson and her overwhelmingly emotional and dramatic character, Dafoe as Tom meekly slides into the background as a cold and emotionless prop, effectively overlooking the brilliance of the way the actor calculates and performs his role. However, close examination of their two characters reveals that Tom, in the end, is vastly more interesting. Vivienne’s character may be overdramatic, loud, and attention seeking, but it borders on a cliché. A young woman misunderstood by medical science and rejected and ridiculed by her culture is not an unheard of story, and as the film wears on, her antics grow tiresome, and the audience doesn’t get much of what was truly distinctive about the allegedly energetic, spirited, and literate Vivienne Eliot. While Viv’s role approaches a cliché, Tom on the other hand, presents us with a completely unique and intensely interesting character. The role is a reactive one, which in itself is always difficult to play, but Dafoe exhibits impressive restraint, perfectly echoing the emotional misunderstanding that he felt toward himself and those surrounding him. There is also an odd combination of brutality and cowardice in his role, but the balance that Dafoe strikes exhibits both without making him seem inhuman. As viewers, we feel sympathy for Tom and his relationship with Viv, but at the same time, the audience never truly gets any real insight into his mind. Dafoe remains rigid and reserved, but his choice not to give us any of that insight is consistent with Eliot’s own lack of understanding of his own emotions. If Eliot is unable to understand them himself, then why, as an audience, are we expected to understand? As the film concludes, we are left with a sort of Eliot-sized hole at the center. This hole and feeling echoes his sentiment towards the end of the film, when he laments, “I crave companionship, yet I am completely alone”. Tom’s character is certainly somewhat of a hole in the story, always showing restraint, pulling back into himself within his marriage because of his inability to understand either his wife’s or his own emotions. Dafoe shows us that Tom did actually love Viv, but his emotional stiltedness froze him, as the restraint he was constantly exhibiting slowly emptied him further and further, until he was ultimately left as a rigid hole of an individual. Though Willem Dafoe’s performance is not the loudest or most colorful in “Tom and Viv,” it is most certainly the deepest and the most impressive. The restraint that he showed while playing T.S. Eliot perfectly balanced and exhibited the numerous complexities within Eliot’s difficult character.

“Tom and Viv” is an ambitious artistic work. Clearly, the ghastly marriage between Eliot and Haigh-Wood, though wreaking emotional havoc on the pair, as well as their family and friends, eventually resulted in some incredible poetry. Any relationship that played a part in producing such epic art is one that should be memorialized, and though the film does not quite achieve the status of a masterpiece, it provides a commendable effort towards telling such a historically and artistically significant story. Willem Dafoe is a standout actor. However, despite his incredible efforts, the viewer is still left with just as little understanding of the complex individual of T.S. Eliot as he had when the film began. Though Dafoe brought him so intricately to life on screen, Eliot still remains somewhat of a mystery. Yet again we are just left with the art Eliot created and inspired, as it gives us a window into one of the greatest literary figures our world has ever seen.

Works Cited

Tom & Viv. Dir. Brian Gilbert. By Michael Hastings and Adrian Hodges. Perf. Miranda Richardson, Willem Dafoe, Rosemary Harris, and Nikolas Grace. Entertainment Film Distributors, 1994. DVD