Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were immortalized as the tempestuous George and Martha in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The twice married (to each other) and divorced couple were life-long friends and their relationship is the poster child for on-again/off-again couples. In 2012, Lindsay Lohan scandalized the late Taylor in Lifetime’s screeching Liz & Dick, so when the BBC announced their own take on the Burton//Taylor relationship, simply dubbed Burton and Taylor, it was believed the British channel was riding Lifetime’s coattails. Burton and Taylor is head and shoulders above Liz & Dick, but it’s far from an enduring piece of entertainment. The plotline is nicely contained to one element of the duo’s lengthy life together, but too often devolves into theatrics and After School Special melodrama albeit with classier, more competent actors.
In 1983, Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter) and Richard Burton (Dominic West) reunited to perform Noel Coward’s play, Private Lives. As Taylor struggles with alcoholism, Burton is flummoxed at how to act both on-stage and off, opposite his unprepared ex.
The acting is where Burton and Taylor excels because the studio hired actors, as opposed to personalities rife for mockery. Unfortunately, you’ll have as hard a time believing West and Carter are playing the Burton and Taylor as you might have Grant Bowler and Lohan. Outside of some makeup, neither Carter nor West does much to come off like they’re playing anything more than dress-up. There are fleeting moments where Carter says a line with Taylor’s snippety tone, or looks at Burton in a certain way that’s vaguely reminiscent of Taylor. The costume and makeup department certainly have an easier time making Carter look like Taylor, albeit it’s just a wig and some makeup. West is harder to swallow because outside of some gray hairs he does absolutely nothing to resemble Richard Burton. He sounds, acts, and looks like Dominic West. I hate to say it, but Grant Bowler’s over-the-top Shakespearean cadence sold me on him as Burton than West. Of course, the actors are already walking a fine line between acting as the character and doing a cheap SNL imitation, but there’s little believability because it comes off like the actors aren’t trying at all.
Thankfully, the chemistry between West and Carter comes off better than their appearance. The movie is akin to the classic Jack Lemmon/Lee Remick movie Days of Wine and Roses, although in this case Burton is the reformed alcoholic to Taylor’s constant booze and pill binges. Taylor’s addictions are on the periphery of the plot for awhile, only to run into the screen and become a crucial element by the end. It feels more like an element the script realizes it must address due to the time period as opposed to something which naturally fits into the story.
The crux of the story follows Burton and Taylor’s doomed attempt to put on Coward’s play, as well as deal with the feelings they have for each other. West and Carter are sweet and playful in the roles, especially when they’re allowed to act boozy. It’s evident, not just in the flashbacks, that the two overly familiar with each other, like they’ve been in love for several decades. However, it’s in doing the play that the worst in both of them comes out. Taylor can’t stop mugging for the cameras, shows up unprepared or drunk, while Burton can’t help critiquing his ex-wife’s performance. Eventually, the entire thing devolves into violence, sadness, and one of the weirdest plays every presented.
I just couldn’t understand why the movie felt phenomenally short. At 85-minutes, the movie remains contained within the production of the play which helps present events from becoming difficult to manage. However, once the script and characters become comfortable the movie is practically over leaving you to wonder where the time went. It’s either proof of really great pacing or just a thin plot, too breezy to provide much impact. The events of the play are so lightweight, with the main focus being the fear that Burton/Taylor lived out their issues on-stage, that there’s no real analysis into it. Burton mentions audiences are only interested in seeing them fight on-stage, as if it’s real, but there’s no further exploration. By the end, if you don’t know anything other than what you’ve watched, you’d believe that yes, the two lived their life both on-screen and off.
The occasional moments of zany comedy and sweet romance are well-needed, but the story feels too thin to hold the weight of the stars. It fails to help that you’ll believe Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West are such legendary figures. If you can ignore all that, and the wild antics of the two actors do more than enough to help, then Burton and Taylor is an intriguing look at a little known time in their lives. The DVD is light on bonus content, just two featurettes, but worth a cursory look.