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Fun with Dick and Liz? Burton And Taylor (July 22, BBC4) ~ Review

July 25, 2013

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Directed by: Richard Laxton; Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Dominic West, Lenora Crichlow and Michael Jibson; Written by: William Ivory; UK; 82 minutes; Colour

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Perhaps (or perhaps not) marking this year’s 50th anniversary of the notoriously ill-fated ‘sword and sandal’ epic Cleopatra (1963) and definitely marking The Best Channel On British Television™’s last home-made drama for some time (thanks, BBC cut-backs), Burton And Taylor, you might say, had one or two things riding on it. Happily enough then, this one-off, feature-length, mostly imagined delve into the mostly dark final coming together of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor is both a fitting commemoration of the half-century-old movie on whose set the pair met and a fitting finale for BBC4’s acclaimed strand of biopics of yesteryear’s legends (see here for my reviews of 2010’s Lennon Naked and 2011’s Hattie).

Dick and Liz, of course, were the ‘celebrity couple of the 20th Century’; the paramorous pair the public were absorbed by for nigh-on two decades (their two marriages, the flouting of their combined wealth thanks to ostentatious outfitting and injudicious jewelry purchases and their relationship seemingly mirrored in their on-screen collaborations, most obviously 1966’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolfe?). For those with memories that stretch back that far and younger ones like me who are turned on by the zeitgeist of lore, their oh-so public, über-passionate relationship still holds a hell of a cachet. And, while Burton And Taylor plays on that, for sure (hey, it was made because the subject’s the stuff of legend, right?), for the most part it wisely ignores the gaudy spectacle, excess and frippery that ‘The Dick and Liz Show’ was for so many who followed it.

Instead, by focusing on their last meaningful face-to-face interactions as they performed together in an ill-judged, ill-received 1983 Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s classic play Private Lives, it shows the pair as middle-aged has-beens, both in terms of their careers and their relationship – they’ve moved on from each other; or have they? It thus aims to hit the audience with a heady vodka-cocktail-esque concoction of pathos, melancholia,  regret, (faux) maturity and nostalgia. And, like the protagonist of the remorse-filled, retrospective King Lear that Burton frets about tackling throughout and would surely have nailed (had he not been taken from us just months later in 1984), Richard Laxton’s drama nails its aspirations splendidly.

Helena Bonham Carter (apparently flying in the face of her mother’s assertion she was crazy to take on playing ‘a legend’ such as Taylor) claimed she was attracted to the project because it’s essentially a love story about two people; and that’s why Burton  And Taylor works. It’s stripped-back and tight fare and, for the most part, a two-hander between her Liz and Dominic West’s Dick. The just-turned-50-years-old former wants to rekindle her love-affair (for a second time) with the latter; the latter doesn’t and merely needs the pay-day that the former’s proposed Broadway project will provide. And that’s pretty much it. But, pleasingly, it’s a slow-burner; fittingly so, given the ages and fading star-status of its jaded subjects. Neither the old-school spirit-fuelled Burton (all bass-booming ‘you all right, loves?’) and Gloria Swanson-like diva-ish Taylor fit the ’80s – an early scene of the former waiting for a ’70s disco tune he recognises (and, admittedly, by which time he’s pissed enough) to hit a disco’s dancefloor is a delight – but do they fit each other anymore? Can they kick-start their bandwagon or should they stay off the wagon for good?

And that’s another theme that’s at work – and cannily so. Addiction. Burton is trying (way too late, as we sadly all know it turned out) to kick the booze and, at his half-hearted instigation, Taylor is trying to stop drinking and popping the sleeping pills (on which the world was to learn later she’d been hooked for much of her adult life). But there’s another dependence for them both, of course – each other. ‘We’re addicts, Elizabeth’, Burton tells her at one point, adding ‘you can have too much love’. Electric chemistry, an intellectual and amused meeting of minds, desire, sex, in short, love can bind, sustain and define two souls… but it can also destroy them.

No question then, William Ivory (2010’s Made In Dagenham and 2012’s Bert & Dickie) deserves much credit for his smart, witty, insightful scripting, but so too does helmer Laxton for his conjuring up of pitch-perfect melancholic atmos and ensuring the two leads’ playing delivers just the right level of poignancy and pathos, without descending too far into sentimentality. Speaking of which, Bonham Carter (as so often) is outstanding as Taylor; playful, prickly, wily, wide-eyed and adoring. West (despite his valleys-meets-RSC interpretation of Burton’s brogue wandering in the final few scenes) is just as good; his Dick a battered, drink-battling tiger who’s looking for something other than the past to hold on to and give him direction. Ultimately, as Nazareth serenaded us in 1976 (the year the couple divorced for the second time), love hurts truly, madly, deeply – and perhaps even more so than most – for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

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For a short time, you can watch Burton And Taylor on the BBC’s iPlayer here (UK and Northern Ireland only) 

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