We can wonder how BBC America’s Burton And Taylor might have been received in the absence of Lifetime’s Liz And Dick, which, almost a year ago, did not quite rehabilitate Lindsay Lohan’s career in the way she was hoping. Perhaps we’d have been able to see this biopic, with Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, purely as its own project.
But it’s very difficult not to be conked in the head over and over again by the sheer number of things Burton And Taylor, which is still essentially a celebrity meltdown biopic, gets right that Liz And Dick got wrong. It’s not a surprise in the great majority of cases, given who’s involved, but it’s conspicuous nevertheless.
Unsurprisingly, the portrayal of Taylor is the biggest one of all. Bonham Carter has a firm hand on a fundamental conflict within Taylor, which is that she seems like such an impossibly elegant, self-possessed woman at some moments and like such an infuriating flake at others. The styling is not as amped-up as Lohan’s was; it’s not quite as glamorous. But Bonham Carter’s breathy, chirpy Taylor voice recalls the woman eerily at times.
It’s safe to say Dominic West also makes a substantially more persuasive serious British stage actor than Grant Bowler did. The film is more sympathetic to Burton than to Taylor in many ways, and West gives him a certain weary attachment to her — more the attachment of an addict than a lover.
Burton And Taylor also benefits from the decision to focus on a particular period of time; namely, the Broadway production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives in which the two co-starred in 1983, several years after their second divorce. While the Lifetime film seemed like a highlight reel of iconic moments, this one can sit with some actual story elements, like Burton’s erratic attempts to quit drinking and his far more serious attempts to get Taylor off of pills (a few months prior to her first trip to the Betty Ford Center, and not terribly long before he died), long enough for them to have some heft.
It’s not necessarily great, but it affords them and their relationship some complexity (and toxicity) and nuance. And the performances from the two leads, perhaps appropriately, are terrific.
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