By Owen Gleiberman
Updated February 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Can it be a coincidence that so many of the celebrated poets of the 20th century (Pound, Lowell, Sexton) had a skeleton of insanity in their closets, a rattling second self? In T.S. Eliot’s case, this clandestine instability took on a peculiarly detached and sublimated form. He was, on the one hand, the model of buttoned-down decorum (born in St. Louis, this is a man who chose to be English, a banker, and Catholic), yet he married a woman whose flamboyant history of mental breakdown came to seem a displaced eruption of his own id. In his poetry, all gorgeous fragmentation and despair, he might almost have been channeling his wife’s madness. As a chronicle of Eliot’s famously unhappy first marriage, TOM AND VIV (Miramax, PG-13), starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson, is the kind of sodden, tasteful, here-are-a-few-nasty-warts-to-chew-on biography that raises as many dramatic questions as it answers. What is it, exactly, that draws the young Tom Eliot, a staid, brilliant Oxford graduate student, to the robustly sensual and flighty Vivienne Haigh-Wood? If you find ”opposites attract” clichés floating through your brain, you’ve thought out the matter as well as the film has. For a while, Viv’s instability takes the form of naughty outbursts, as when she makes the proud announcement, at an elegant family dinner, that Bertrand Russell would like to have sex with her. The movie quickly settles into a predictable, numbing rhythm: Viv acts out, is gently scolded by Tom, and quietly broods. There is more scolding and more brooding. Yet for all of Tom and Viv‘s middlebrow mustiness, Dafoe and Richardson succeed in holding the picture together.

As the ineffably subversive Eliot, Dafoe uses his wormy, placid stare to suggest not just thought but hard-won consciousness. His Tom takes on Viv as a kind of life burden-his own personal cross to bear-and there are hints that his compassion, his very goodness, is part of what’s killing her. Richardson, her eyes agleam with life, gives Viv the full force of her haughty neurotic glamour. By the end, when Eliot agrees to consign her to a mental institution (in truth, there’s question about how involved he was in her incarceration), you watch the sad spectacle with divided feelings, knowing that on some level he’s right, that Viv is no longer functioning in the real world, but also that he’s locking away the best part of himself. He got-and saw destroyed-the muse he asked for. B-