Legendary acting duo and husband and wife, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor prepare for a 1983 theatrical production of the play, “Private Lives.”
“Burton and Taylor” stars Dominic West as Richard Burton and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Taylor. The film traces the story of the last time the two worked together, on a critically lambasted theatrical tour of Noel Coward’s play ‘Private Lives’, as they remember and reassess their relationship. When rehearsals start, and all the actors are present and getting ready for a read-through, Taylor lets everybody know, at the last minute, that she hasn’t even read the play yet. She thinks because she is who she is, that everyone will understand but Burton takes her aside and accosts her for being unprofessional and it’s at this point, we know it’s not going to be smooth sailing.
Both Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter triumph in walking a fine line between impersonation and acting, whether it’s Mr. West who looks and sounds just like Mr. Burton, erupting into a towering rage or Ms. Bonham Carter as Taylor, assuming a pose of taught dignity or throwing a wink to both the audience and the camera that is alive with the screen presence of the original. The performances by all throughout, are terrific and when Burton and Taylor are off-stage and away from the public eye, we can only assume that they are imagined versions of who these people might have been. Burton is always professional as theatre has always been his first love and he won’t allow anybody, especially Taylor, to make a mockery of it.
Taylor takes everything in her stride and because she’s Elizabeth Taylor, she knows that the audience will love her simply because, she’s Elizabeth Taylor. It’s quite obvious that even though both are romantically involved with other people, they still care for, and love each other, although neither will ever admit it out loud. When they both decide to go out for dinner to a quiet restaurant, Ms. Taylor enters and everyone applauds her but when Mr. Burton enters, nobody seems to notice. And that’s okay with him. Mr. Burton prefers being out of the spotlight but as the evening progresses, they both remember the earlier years when they were at the height of their fame.
Mr. Burton it seems, is okay with remembering the good ol’ times but Ms. Taylor doesn’t want to let go, professionally or romantically. It was a known fact that Mr. Burton was a hell raiser and alcoholic and for the sake of the play, he struggles to stay away from the booze but Ms. Taylor drinks and pops pills as she struggles with her own addiction, namely, Mr. Burton. The play within the movie, Private Lives, was very enigmatic for both Mr. Burton and Ms. Taylor as it tells the story of a divorced couple on vacation with their new partners who end up in adjoining rooms and find that it’s virtually impossible to be with each other yet be away from each other at the same time.
By the end of the play, Mr. Burton realizes that the audience didn’t like the play for what it was, rather, he felt that they had been invited into his and Ms. Taylor’s private lives instead. As one of the all-time greatest couples, both onscreen and off, we hope that they will get back together and work things out but they know, having been twice married, it just won’t work, no matter how badly they want it to. In the end, the movie is about many things; love, addiction, failure, rejection, getting older and having regrets. But like Ms. Taylor, sometimes, in the face of adversity, it’s good to just take things in your stride.
Airs on BBC America October 16th