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UNORTHODOX as the order may appear, "Tom & Viv" ought to have been titled "Viv & Tom" -- or, simply, "Viv."

Though Brian Gilbert's extraordinary film focuses on T. S. Eliot's first marriage, we learn only slightly more about America's most renowned poet than we would from hearing Barbra Streisand sing something out of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats."

Based on the play by Michael Hastings, "Tom & Viv" is all about Viv: Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the sharp, vivacious and unbalanced aristocrat Eliot wed in 1915 and agreed to have involuntarily committed to an insane asylum 24 years later.

It's the literary variation on "A Star Is Born," the English "Camille Claudel." In the context of the film, Willem Dafoe's unassuming-verging-on-unmemorable turn as the Nobel laureate seems suitable. if you knew Eliot only by "The Waste Land," you might believe otherwise, but most historians describe the poet as a quiet, proper and repressed type -- in other words, everything his first wife was not.

She takes credit for Eliot's greatness and embarrasses him in front of his colleagues. Her medicine shelf is filled with a variety of potent, addicting medication prescribed for her frequent headaches and stomach problems. She suffers from fits of rage as well as raging hormones that cause bimonthly and sometimes trimonthly menstrual cycles.

Amid these fits and frenzies, it's easier to understand what Tom saw in Viv than what Viv saw in Tom. And Miranda Richardson's mesmerizing, Oscar-nominated performance is largely the reason.

Surrounded by some remarkable talent, Richardson is captivating. In another actress' hands, Viv could have been reduced to the sum total of a few terrific tantrums. Richardson's Viv is spirited, misunderstood, brutally honest and always charismatic.

We are introduced to Viv not long after she meets Eliot, a handsome young student at Merton College, Oxford. According to Viv's brother, Maurice (Tim Dutton), Viv is searching for salvation from "tight, little England" in an American who "tries so hard to be more English than the English."

A match made in Edwardian hell? Eliot didn't even know Viv had a history of emotional and medical problems until the honeymoon. Before the couple elopes, Maurice makes his dandiest attempt at forthrightness when he warns his soon-to-be-brother-in-law that Viv needs "careful handling: 'this side up' kind of thing."

Remember: This is England in the early 20th century, and these are people whose alarm would be palpable if one's britches had a loose thread hanging from them. It is as lamentable as it is darkly comic that a woman who pulls knives on her husband's colleagues and has to be placed under house arrest is described as getting into "a spot of bother" and suffering from -- blush -- "women's troubles" and "a faulty moral barometer."

Eliot's angst about his wife's condition is largely unspoken. He responds by keeping Viv at bay from his chums in the Bloomsbury literati circle. This, in turn, foments his wife's jealousy.

If you feel any pity for Eliot's premarital ignorance to his wife's condition, it's difficult to sustain that feeling. Eliot never saw his wife, nor wrote to her, after she was committed. Had he done so he would have learned that, once menopause set in and the the dose of debilitating medicine was removed from Viv's daily diet, she was in perfect form. Under the Lunacy Act of the day, however, only Eliot and Viv's brother could have petitioned for her release, which they never did.

"Tom & Viv" is a movie of moments: Each shot looks like a painting and, in the style of Merchant-Ivory, each scene leaves behind an imprint. One of the deepest impressions left is at a family gathering. There, Eliot and Viv read to the Haigh-Woods what is to become "The Waste Land" and Viv's mother, Rose (Oscar nominee Rosemary Harris), senses the disturbing poem is about her son-in-law's wasted marriage. (In fact, the Eliot estate refused to allow any of the poet's works to be used in the play and finally permitted about a dozen lines in the movie's script.)

In another, the couple's mismatch is underscored when Eliot's baptism into the Church of England coincides with Viv's threatening Virginia Woolf at knifepoint.

It's easy to applaud most of performances in "Tom & Viv," but it's just as easy to visualize a host of actors filling Dafoe's shoes.

Richardson, on the other hand is irreplaceable.

May we have the envelope, please? Can we finally give this actress the Oscar she's overdue?

Tom & Viv
Rating: ****
Film about T.S. Eliot's first, disastrous marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood.
Starring Willem Dafoe, Miranda Richardson, Tim Dutton and Rosemary Harris. Directed by Brian Gilbert.
Rated PG-13, now playing at Amherst Theater.

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