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Burton and Taylor: Hamptons Review

Burton and Taylor BBC America - H 2013
BBC America

The Bottom Line

Unconvincing micro-biopic holds appeal for only the most ardent Liz & Dick fans.

Venue

Hamptons International Film Festival (Focus on U.K. Film)

Cast

Dominic West, Helena Bonham Carter

Director

Richard Laxton

Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter play one of Hollywood's most famous couples tackling their last job together.

Compared to the train wreck it chronicles -- the final collaboration of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, on 1983's critically reviled Broadway production of Noel Coward's Private Lives -- Richard Laxton's Burton and Taylor isn't so bad. Neither of its stars, Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West, appear to be soused or stoned; both deliver their lines without mugging to the audience.

On the other hand, Private Lives at least gave enormous pleasure to some of the actors' fans -- star-worshipping rubes, it seems, who'd guffaw and applaud at anything La Liz said or did, and happily imagined that the play (about a divorced couple who accidentally reconnect) signaled an offstage reunion for the pair. It's hard to imagine Burton and Taylor offering that kind of gratification to any fan, except perhaps those who respond to its depiction of their on/off relationship (they were married and divorced twice) as a kind of unbreakable bond, a volcano-strength love that could neither live happily nor die. Presented here on the big screen, the BBC production is a TV movie at best, and should fade quickly from memory after its debut this Wednesday on BBC America.

The staging of Private Lives, their last collaboration before Burton's 1984 death, was produced by Taylor. William Ivory's script suggests it was largely a ploy -- Taylor's attempt to rekindle a romance with her favorite leading man. While Burton approaches it as a legitimate gig, showing up promptly to rehearsals and going home to girlfriend Sally Hay, Taylor keeps a diva's schedule, is high when she does show, and hasn't even read the play when rehearsals begin. This remains the template when the play starts its run, with Taylor trusting fans to forgive her missed performances and late arrivals while expecting her increasingly irate costar to eventually declare his undying love.

Given the many liberties taken by the script (it imagines, for instance, a grand farewell at the end of the play's New York run, when in fact the production toured to other cities afterward), it would take a biographer or two to decide how much of the film's backstage shenanigans we should believe. What's easier to assess is its ability to convince us it's Burton and Taylor onscreen, and here it fails completely. Though West and Bonham Carter perform admirably (the former earning most of the viewer's sympathy), both are overshadowed by the many hours of screen time we've shared with the stars; only in a few fleeting moments -- a camera angle here, an emphasized syllable there -- is it possible to go along with the illusion.

Production: BBC

Cast: Dominic West, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Richard Laxton

Screenwriter: William Ivory

Producer: Lachlan MacKinnon

Executive producer: Jessica Pope

Director of photography: David Katznelson

Editor: Stuart Gazzard

Music: John Lunn

No rating, 82 minutes