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 and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea