The 90-minute biopic based on the Richard Burton Diaries, follows Richard Burton (Dominic West) and Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter) amidst the backdrop of their appearance in the 1983 ill-fated revival of Noel Coward’s stage play, ‘Private Lives‘.
The drama opens with the announcement of their collaboration, during a press conference, held in New York in september 1982. By that time Liz had divorced John Warner, and secretly hoped to rekindle her romance with Burton. The play was Liz’s idea, as she was the producer as well as the star, and wanted Burton to share the stage with her from the start.
The image of the Hollywood couple was always that of glamour, jewelery, lots of assistants – a jet set life. You don’t get to see any of that in this drama as you get a more honest and realistic view of their relationship.
Helena Bonham Carter portrays the fragile and mentally suffering Taylor perfectly, she’d hoped to spend lots of time with Richard after rehearsal hours, but he chose to return to his girlfriend Sally instead. A very sad image emerges of Liz seeking comfort in pills and alcohol to cope with the situation, and the pressures of acting on the stage. Throughout the drama you really feel how much she yearns for Richard to become part of her life again. All hopes dashed when she has to read from a newspaper article that Burton had married Sally in Las Vegas.
Dominic West has the voice of Burton just right but his performance doesn’t sparkle nearly as much as that of Helena Bonham Carter. There are plenty of scenes showing the performances of the play, but they are far from tedious as you always get another glimpse into their relationship. Liz might appear on the stage drunk at times, but she mainly joins in with the public and often adds improvisations of her own – meant to knock Burton. One of those highlights is when she appears on the stage with her parrot ‘Alvin’, much to the hilarity of the audience, but Richard is beyond mortified. After one of those incidents it results in a full showdown backstage with a kicking and screaming Taylor, slapping Burton in the face.
Thankfully there are some flashbacks which shows the couple during much happier times, with a hilarious scene of a 40-year-old Liz, having a drunk ‘gym session’ with Burton in their hotel room. It’s a shame really the biopic chose to focus so much on those rather bleak last few months they spent together, instead of adding more of those light-hearted moments.
Burton died shortly after the play ended, following a stroke. Though the signs were there as he was suffering with all kinds of pains. The end message of the drama is the one that Richard gives to Liz, that they are two people who will always love each other, but together they cause too much destruction – two alcoholics with problems of their own.
Burton and Taylor gives a brief glimpse in the lives of the legendary Hollywood couple, questioning what exactly defines love and a relationship. Dominic West is over shadowed by Helena Bonham Character who nails her performance as Liz Taylor with brilliance. Slurring lines whenever Liz was drunk, showcasing lots of quirky humour during the play scenes, but most importantly making the audience feel the desperation and love for Burton.
A very enjoyable watch, and it would be fully deserving should Helena Bonham Carter be nominated for a Bafta next year…