The Jewish Chronicle
Strange Fruit and sugar coatings
The United States vs Billie Holiday
Cert: 15 ★★★★✩
GRAMMY NOMINATED singer Andra Day puts in a stunning performance as troubled jazz legend Billie Holiday in this handsomely crafted biopic from director Lee Daniels, on Sky Cinema. Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks from Johann Hari’s book Chasing The Scream, The United States vs Billie Holiday has already earned newcomer Day a Golden Globe nomination, sending her well on the way to global stardom.
It’s the early 1940s and Billie Holiday has been dazzling jazz crowds with her raspy and beautifully mournful voice. Addicted to heroin and mistreated by almost every man in her life, the troubled star’s life unravels when she becomes the target of a spiteful government campaign under the guise of the “war on drugs”. Their real motivation is in fact to stop the singer from performing her famous ballad Strange Fruit, a rousing cry against lynching and racial inequality (written by Jewish songwriter Abel Meeropol).
The film delves into Holiday’s relationships, notably with actress Tallulah Bankhead (Nata
The real aim is to stop the singer performing Strange Fruit, a rousing cry against racial inequality
sha Lyonne) and her supposed affair with Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes), a federal agent tasked with infiltrating her inner circle.
Much like Holiday herself, Daniels’ film is flawed, but shows moments of real genius. Layered with magical realism and some commendably understated performances throughout, the film refuses to sanitise the star’s life by showing her, warts and all.
This film feels both timely and overdue, with Day’s impressive portrayal of one of the most iconic artists of all time, centre stage.
Roald Dahl’s antisemitism was a secret to nobody. Last year — three decades after his death — his family issued an apology saying his views caused “lasting and understandable hurt”. In a New Statesman interview in 1983, Dahl said that there “is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,”adding: “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
This vital thread in Dahl’s life is never alluded to in the newly released Sky Cinema biopic which stars Hugh Bonneville as the famous children’s author. Instead, To Olivia focuses on his marriage to Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal (played adequately by TV favourite Keeley Hawes) and on the loss of their daughter Olivia to whom he dedicated his best-selling book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Writer/director John Hay presents a contrived and cliché-filled biopic which uses all the tricks in the book usually associated with these kinds of productions.
Bonneville puts in a decent enough turn as Dahl, but To Olivia is severely lacking in the storytelling stakes and often feels listless and needlessly melodramatic.
Overall, there is very little here to warrant anyone’s time and that is the film’s main downfall. Furthermore, apart from Dahl’s unsavoury views, there are some other pertinent omissions in the story which skirts around Dahl’s well-documented alleged mistreatment of his family throughout his marriage to Neal and the eventual break-up of his marriage. Too much syrup in this sweetie factory.