'Burton and Taylor': BBC America film bests 'Liz & Dick' thanks to a revelatory Helena Bonham Carter
Last fall's "Liz & Dick," Lifetime's attempt to dramatize the legendary story, failed for this very reason. Not only did the writers foolishly try to cram the entirety of the couple's 20-year relationship in 89 minutes, whatever earnest intentions brought the film to fruition were eclipsed by the network's cynical casting of Lindsay Lohan in the lead role. Touted as a comeback for the disgraced starlet, who stressed to the press her connection with Taylor based on their tabloid troubles, the film did nothing much but devolve into joke.
By comparison, BBC America's "Burton and Taylor," which premiered on Wednesday (Oct. 16) after an initial airing across the pond in July, is Oscar-worthy. While it certainly benefits from the existence of Lifetime's mess, it ought to proudly stand on its own merit.
The film wisely avoids getting lost in chronicling the couple's entire relationship, instead opting to ground itself in a single point in time, late in their history. As it focuses on their preparation for 1983 Broadway revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," seven years after their second divorce, "Burton and Taylor" trusts its audience to have a knowledge of the earlier, tawdry days in the movie stars' lives.
At this point in time, Burton (portrayed here by Dominic West) is struggling with his sobriety, while Taylor ( Helena Bonham Carter) is firmly in the clutches of her addiction. This dichotomy is where the film derives much of its power. Whether it was an intention or not, the biopic works as a study of addiction, subconsciously arguing that the 20+ year clutch Burton and Taylor had on one another was the toughest addiction to kick. In the film's final scene, this theme becomes a little too on-the-nose, with some dialogue that it's hard to believe anyone would ever say to one another, but it's not so egregious that it negates the earlier-laid groundwork.
Carter and West turn in winning performances, however little they resemble the icons they've been tasked to portray. Carter, given the tougher job of representing one of Hollywood's legendary beauties, taps into the troubling psyche that was Elizabeth Taylor with zeal. It's a powerhouse performance, one that manages to realize the wild combination of talent, sexuality and fragility that existed within Taylor. The film may present the icon as rather unhinged, but, let's face it, she likely was.
The story of Taylor and Burton may have run its course, and surely any future attempt to tell it will feel remarkably unnecessary, but "Burton and Taylor" succeeds thanks to its truncated timeline and intimate feel. That said, perhaps it's time the two are allowed to simply rest in peace.
What did you think of "Burton and Taylor"?