TV review: Burton and Taylor (BBC4) contained nuance and nostalgia, but not enough sheer bloody awfulness

3.00

 

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were monuments going badly to seed by the time they appeared on stage together in Noel Coward’s Private Lives in 1983. Burton died less than a year after the play’s run ended. Taylor was heavily overweight, drinking too much and taking too many pills. This is the period in the two stars’ lives that the BBC’s new biopic covers. It’s a fascinating but very flawed affair.

The central problem the drama faces is that Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter are so far removed from the sacred monsters they are playing. They give intelligent and nuanced performances without coming remotely close to capturing the grotesquerie or magnificence of Burton and Taylor.

“Hello, pock mark,” Bonham Carter’s Taylor greets West’s Burton early on. “Hello, lumpy,” he replies in kind. West, though, looks more like an ageing English matinee idol than the “pustular and acne’d and angry” man Burton described himself as being. Bonham Carter is sylph-like compared to Taylor. Both seem too young and unscarred for their roles.

William Ivory’s screenplay is heavy on nostalgia, wistful and a little maudlin. It portrays the stars (who had married and divorced each other twice) as a couple with enormous, lingering affection for one another. They’re caught in a world of early Eighties garishness. The music we hear at the start of the film is Imagination’s 1982 disco hit, “Just An Illusion”. When they’re on stage together, the audience look at them as if they are freaks. The play is panned but their star wattage ensures it is still a hit. Both yearn for an earlier, classier period. In one short flashback to better times, we see them listening to Frank Sinatra in a hotel room as they try to exercise together before deciding that having sex might be a better idea. They reminisce about Cleopatra, the film on which they met and started their affair more than 20 years before.

For all its poignance, Ivory’s screenplay doesn’t yield much of the caustic dialogue that Burton and Taylor used to spit at each other with such ferocity in films from Cleopatra to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? It is to the actors’ credit that they don’t ham it up. West sensibly avoids trying to imitate Burton’s rich and resonant voice, instead speaking with a slight Welsh lilt. Bonham Carter has excellent comic timing. There is one funny scene early on in which Taylor startles her colleagues at a rehearsal of Private Lives by revealing that she hasn’t actually read the play. Given that it was her idea to put on the play in the first place, this is an extraordinary admission. Then again, Ivory’s screenplay implies that her real motivation for doing Private Lives was the chance to be close to Burton again.

As a story about old lovers and colleagues working together for one last time, Burton & Taylor is affecting and well observed. As a portrayal of the two stars, it is off the mark. It fails to capture the recklessness that defined its subjects’ relationship. From their drinking to their shopping, from their rows to their reconciliations, everything about the real-life Burton and Taylor was on an epic scale. It’s this sense of heroic excess that Richard Laxton’s well crafted but restrained drama fails to capture.

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?