TV review: Burton and Taylor (BBC4) contained nuance and nostalgia, but not enough sheer bloody awfulness
Tuesday 23 July 2013
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.
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
The magicians using online collaboration to push boundaries
lifeIt takes year-long dedication to get Selfridges ready for 25 December. And they're already working on plans for 2015...
Jennifer Lawrence attacks mass media again over body image
Arts & Ents blogs
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber announces he's 'retiring from music'
Coriolanus, theatre review: 'Tom Hiddleston has blazing stellar power'
Nymphomaniac, film review: 'Despite the surreal sex scenes this is a serious drama'
A special delivery: Behind the scenes on the set of 'Call the Midwife'
Justin Bieber's mishaps and controversies
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
You can STILL be jailed for being a republican, government confirms, and it remains illegal to even 'imagine' overthrowing the Queen
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
Fighting back: the woman giving a voice (and 49,999 others) to the victims of sexism - by giving an airing to their horror stories
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Ethan Couch: Texas quadruple murderer – or a victim of ‘affluenza’?
- 1 America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 Ian Watkins: Police forces probed over earlier allegations as paedophile Lostprophets singer sentenced to 35 years for child sex offences
- 4 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber announces he's 'retiring from music'
- 5 Children evacuated from swimming pool after prosthetic leg mistaken for paedophile
- < Previous
- Next >