This review contains spoilers.
Burton and Taylor is an intimate new feature-length drama from BBC4, focusing on one of Hollywood’s most (in)famous love affairs, that between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film traces the story of the last time the two worked together, on a critically lambasted theatrical tour of Noël Coward’s play Private Lives, as they remember and reassess their relationship.
The titular superstars are magnificently played by Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter. Both succeed in walking the fine line between impersonation and acting. Just as you might start to think they’ve slipped away from the very familiar faces they’re playing, West will erupt into a towering rage or Bonham Carter will assume a pose of taught dignity or throw a wink to both the audience and the camera that is alive with the screen presence of the original. (And if we can be horribly shallow for a moment, as great as Bonham Carter is playing Bellatrix Lestrange or Mrs Lovatt, she’s a beautiful woman and it’s fun to see her glammed up and looking gorgeous, just for a little while).
There’s a moment when, following some disastrous rehearsals, Bonham Carter slinks onto the live stage for the opening night and suddenly she is Taylor, reminding all of us that what we saw on screen was not who these people really were, but what they projected of themselves for us. What West and Bonham Carter are playing off-stage is an imagined version of who these people might have been away from the public eye. Halfway through, Burton tells Taylor in frustration that, in coming to see Private Lives, the audience thought they’d got an invite into Burton and Taylor’s lives, and that is exactly how the viewer feels in watching this drama. It’s all wonderfully meta.
Burton and Taylor is as much as story about addiction as it is a story about love. The opening word is ‘never’ repeated several times, eventually revealed to be a reference to Burton’s drinking, which he struggles to control throughout the film. Taylor is shown drinking, popping pills and most of all struggling with her addiction to Burton himself, as he does with his to her. The script leans slightly more towards him than her, representing her as another addiction that he must conquer (by leaving to marry his current girlfriend, Sally Hay, seen only briefly and largely a silent but ever-constant presence) while she is in the throes of her own addictions, to him, to alcohol, to pills. The odd shot of pills dropping from the air across a montage of scenes from the play is perhaps a little over the top, but for the most part these themes are handled with sensitivity and understanding, trying to understand what drove these people without unduly judging them for it.
Although the subject matter (divorce, addiction, personal and professional conflict) sounds deeply intense – and in scenes which require it the performances of both leads are deeply moving – this is also a witty piece which uses lots of humour in a sparkling script to tell its story. West and Bonham Carter sparkle in the lighter moments as much as they sizzle in the more dramatic ones, he with an acid dry but ultimately earthy wit (one particularly delightful scene involves two penis metaphors in two minutes, both spot on), she with a fantastic sense of fun (seeing her exercise is as adorably ridiculous as it’s supposed to be).
To the film’s generally great dialogue are added a few quotations from the Bard himself (from King Lear), which never does any harm, especially in the hands of a talented actor. It’s perhaps a shame we don’t get to see a little bit more of Coward’s Private Lives. The plot of that play was an uncanny match for Burton and Taylor’s situation, which is, of course, why Taylor wanted to produce and star in it; a divorced couple on holiday with their new partners end up in adjoining rooms and find they cannot quite find a way to live either with or without each other. Considering it’s not an especially well known play, a little more explanation of the subject matter might have helped, especially when Burton becomes extremely uncomfortable with the audience’s reaction to the character of ‘Sybil’ – his character’s new wife, but also the name of his first wife, the wife he scandalously left for Taylor back in the early 1960s (to the consternation, as we are reminded, of the whole world, up to and including the Pope). With limited running time, the red raw scar of the subject matter of Private Lives has to be rather passed over, which is a shame, though probably inevitable. Other references to past roles are more successful – Antony and Cleopatra’s story is, we hope, sufficiently well known that Taylor’s plea of ‘Where is my Antony?’ hits home as a reference to both the overwhelming passion of a romance which sees him soften towards her obvious desire for him only after they’ve physically attacked each other, as well as its ultimately doomed nature.
This is an intimate piece, made in eighteen days on limited sets (either every theatre in America looks exactly the same, or we should imagine that in this version of reality, the production stays in New York City rather than touring). However, viewers will feel neither the time nor budgetary restrictions, as we are drawn in by the performances, supported by brilliant hair and make-up and some lovely 1980s-ified establishing shots of New York City. It’s a film about age, regrets, about frustration and addiction, but most of all it’s a film about love, even difficult love, and about laughter, even in the face of disaster. Highly recommended.
Read more about Burton and Taylor, here.
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