Bernard and Doris

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8-10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
HBO

In the case of Doris Duke and Bernard Lafferty, little is known but much is imagined. Thanks to the part that is imagined, HBO's "Bernard and Doris" emerges as a sensitive study of two forlorn souls with little in common but a growing dependence on each other.

Sound dull? It could be if not for the work of Ralph Fiennes and Susan Sarandon in the title roles. They are so convincing that they turn viewers into voyeurs. Come awards time, their performances here will not go unnoticed.

Doris Duke, the daughter of a tobacco magnate for whom Duke University is named, inherited a fortune as a young woman. She had two unhappy marriages, and her only child lived for one day. Embittered and made cynical by these experiences, she used men like she used drugs, for fleeting moments of pleasure. She gave generously to favored charities but shunned the spotlight.

Bernard Lafferty, alcoholic and gay, worked as a butler for Peggy Lee and Elizabeth Taylor before seeking the same job with Duke in 1987. When Duke died six years later, her will designated Lafferty as her executor and gave him a seat on each of her trusts. Lafferty lived for three more years, then left his estate to her trusts.

A TV film, "Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke," with Lauren Bacall and Richard Chamberlain, portrayed Lafferty as a sort of Svengali who at the very least hastened Duke's death. For as long as he lived, there were legal challenges that contested Duke's will.

In this film, though, Hugh Costello imagines almost the opposite. He suggests that Lafferty wanted more than anything just to take care of Duke. Meanwhile, Duke, after a lifetime of dealing with people who invariably wanted something from her, finds herself becoming attached to this servant who has only her best interests at heart.

Duke barely knew the names of her household employees yet practically made Lafferty a part of her family. Lafferty turned down several opportunities to profit handsomely from his connection to Duke so that he could continue to serve her.

The film takes place almost entirely within one of Duke's estates, which runs the risk of making viewers claustrophobic. That doesn't happen, though, because the dance between Duke and Lafferty is so unusual and well-choreographed that you nearly forget that it all occurs under just one roof.

Just as remarkable, neither character is particularly likable, but they are nonetheless sympathetic under Bob Balaban's direction. Their evolving relationship is just plain irresistible, particularly as it surmounts barriers of class and servitude.

BERNARD AND DORIS
HBO
Trigger Street Independent Prods. in association with Little Bird and Chicagofilms
Credits:
Executive producers: Dana Brunetti, Kevin Spacey, Bob Balaban, Adam Kassen, Mark Kassen, Jonathan Cavendish
Co-executive producer: Mark Olsen
Director: Bob Balaban
Teleplay: Hugh Costello
Director of photography: Mauricio Rubinstein
Production designer: Franckie Diago
Editor: Andy Keir
Music: Alex Wurman
Casting: Nina Pratt, Kim Moarefi, Fiona Weir
Cast:
Doris Duke: Susan Sarandon
Bernard Lafferty: Ralph Fiennes
Waldo Taft: James Rebhorn
Ben: Nick Rolfe
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