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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

BURTON AND TAYLOR Memorable Disaster

Article first published as BURTON AND TAYLOR Memorable Disaster on TheTVKing.

This week, BBC America presented Burton and Taylor, a two-hour television movie about Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter, Les Miserables) and Richard Burton (Dominic West, The Hour). Specifically, it is about a period near the end of Burton's life in which the two worked on the play "Private Lives" together.

Make no mistake about it; Burton and Taylor is a two-person show. Like the performers that this TV movie is based on, these characters are gravity wells that draw everyone else to them, while at the same time, being concerned mainly with themselves. They aren't usually cruel to bystanders and those they work with; they're the opposite really. They are just almost completely focused on each other and the situation they are in. While no other actor manages to make an impression, not even Lenora Crichlow (Being Human), that's OK, because this is about them. Their names are in the title, after all.

Carter and West suck us in, as surely as Burton and Taylor must have back in the day (I assume; this happened before my time). It's an epic love story of a couple who are more addicted to one another than in love. As a pair, they are destructive, as much hate as adoration flowing between them, able to wound one another as no one can. Yet, their romance is fantastic, and they cannot break away.

Both of these are very large personalities, and the actors rise to the occasion. Carter captures subtleties of Taylor in a way I didn't expect her to, despite her large and accomplished body of work. West is fully believable as a great legend of stage and screen, carrying the swagger and gravitas with ease, while also making Burton human. Both gain the viewer's sympathy, even while also earning pity.

Burton and Taylor feels more like a play than a film. Or rather, like a movie made from a play. The sets are only background, with the two characters the point. The pacing is relaxed, luxuriating in the acting craft, and the tone is slightly melodramatic, an exaggerated effect we'd see in the theater. Only a single flashback, done with great effect near the end, really seems like it wouldn't work as well in the theater.

I love the ending, by the way. It really gets to the heart of the relationship, letting the characters discover the truth in one another and themselves. Neither is the bad guy here; both make mistakes, and both have their eyes opened. But this is definitely a unique dynamic, not the typical marriage, and Burton and Taylor does a terrific job illustrating that.

If I could have changed one thing it would be to make this a miniseries, with a greater period of time covered. The "Private Lives" period is played out pretty well, though it would be nice to see a bit more of the parallel between the play and their reality, something not obvious for those unfamiliar with the plot of "Private Lives." However, there is definitely a lot of history between them that one is expected to figure out or already know at the start. As this production is set in the year of my birth, I don't have that context to just jump in, and I'd like to see these two performers explore more of the characters in other eras, making for a more complete portrait, even though the climax explains what needs to be explained, and adding more may just be a retread.

For those who recall what it was like to live in the time of Burton and Taylor, this may be a nice walk down memory lane, though I doubt it brings a lot of new information to bear. However, it also effectively introduces the two to a new generation, giving us a glimpse of the tabloid culture before the days of cellphones and internet, and examining personalities worth examining, who should be remembered long after their time. To either group, it's enjoyable as a movie unto itself.

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