×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Bernard and Doris

The story of Doris Duke comes outfitted with all the requisite bells and whistles: An obscenely rich tobacco heiress who mysteriously left control over a vast fortune to her meticulous Irish butler.

With:
Doris Duke - Susan Sarandon Bernard Lafferty - Ralph Fiennes Waldo Taft - James Rebhorn Ben - Nick Rolfe

The story of Doris Duke comes outfitted with all the requisite bells and whistles: An obscenely rich tobacco heiress who mysteriously left control over a vast fortune to her meticulous Irish butler. Yet this HBO-acquired take on the story only conjures an “imagined relationship” of what transpired between Duke and Bernard Lafferty, resulting in a not-very-compelling two-character piece with showy moments for Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes but not much else to recommend it.

Part of the story is based on fact, the audience is told at the outset, and “some of it is not” — a rather cavalier approach to a tale that was sensational enough in its day to capture headlines even without such embroidery or embellishment.

Fiennes’ Lafferty is hired virtually on the spot after the finicky and demanding Duke (Sarandon) abruptly fires her previous butler, and Bernard quickly insinuates himself into every aspect of her life except one — his homosexuality eliminating him as one of the male staffers she periodically beds and, in fits of pique, subsequently dismisses.

There is an intriguing tenderness to the relationship, but even Doris remains suspicious of Bernard’s motives, despite his insistence that “I just want to take care of you.”

As written by Hugh Costello and directed by Bob Balaban, that dynamic doesn’t add up to much. The two bicker occasionally, but there’s a lack of depth — in part because we know so little about Bernard’s past beyond the fact that he has a drinking problem. Did he set out to charm Doris and thus inherit her money, or was he merely a beneficiary of fortuitous timing in a rich woman’s empty existence?

Given that this is an “imagined” story unburdened by the pretext of dutifully adhering to reality, a bit more clarity hardly seems like a lot to ask. In the production notes, Balaban does refer to having a puny budget (Duke “left her dogs more money than we had to make the movie!” he’s quoted as saying), but those confinements don’t offer an alibi for such narrative shortcomings.

What the movie does provide is a rare indulgence in long, quiet scenes between the leads, which serve both as a showcase for the actors and a reminder as to how undercooked the script is. For Sarandon, Doris is a slightly less shrewish version of the evil queen she just played in “Enchanted,” while Fiennes is a model of restraint as Bernard except for the sequence where he loses his composure and takes solace in Duke’s wine cellar.

One can see why HBO would gamble on such a modest pickup based on the names attached. Still, much of what passed privately between employer and servant remains shrouded in mystery, and “Bernard and Doris” is ultimately unsatisfying in filling those gaps — real, imagined or otherwise.

Bernard and Doris

HBO, Sat. Feb. 9, 8 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Westbury, N.J., by Trigger Street Independent in association with Little Bird and Chicagofilms. Executive producers, Bob Balaban, Jonathan Cavendish, Adam Kassen, Mark Kassen, Kevin Spacey, Dana Brunetti; co-executive producer, Mark Olsen; director, Balaban; writer, Hugh Costello;

Crew: Camera, Mauricio Rubinstein; production design, Franckie Diago; editor, Andy Keir; music, Alex Wurman; casting, Nina Pratt, Kim Moarefi, Fiona Weir. RUNNING TIME: 105 MIN.

Cast: Doris Duke - Susan Sarandon Bernard Lafferty - Ralph Fiennes Waldo Taft - James Rebhorn Ben - Nick Rolfe

More TV

  • Batwoman -- "Crisis on Infinite Earths:

    'Crisis on Infinite Earths' Recap: The Return of Two Supermen and a World-Ending Plan

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Two,” the “Batwoman” episode of the 2019 “Arrowverse” crossover. “Crisis on Infinite Earths” set a strong tone with its opener Sunday night, as the Anti-Monitor hurtling through space obliterated Earth-38 and claimed its first superhero victim in Oliver Queen aka [...]

  • Batwoman -- "Crisis on Infinite Earths:

    'Crisis on Infinite Earths' Team Talks Oliver's Fate and Batwoman's Big Move (Spoilers)

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Two,” the “Batwoman” episode of the 2019 “Arrowverse” crossover. The second hour of the CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover killed off another iconic hero — but brought one back. After Oliver (Stephen Amell) sacrificed himself in event’s first episode, [...]

  • TV News Roundup: TBS Unveils 'Miracle

    TV News Roundup: TBS Unveils Trailer for 'Miracle Workers: Dark Ages'

    In today’s TV news roundup, TBS releases the first look at Season 2 of “Miracle Workers” and Netflix announces the premiere date for “Cheer.” CASTINGS:  Nickelodeon has called on comedian and writer Adam Conover to host its new family game show “The Crystal Maze.“ In the American rendition of the U.K. series, Conover will take [...]

  • Verve

    Verve Raises Assistant Salaries by Up to 40% in Response to Fair-Pay Movement

    Verve has announced a 25-40% pay increase for its assistants and mailroom employees in response to the #PayUpHollywood movement which has been shining a spotlight on the issue of assistant pay in the industry. The agency, which represents #PayUpHollywood co-founder Liz Alper and regular advocate John August, is also changing its hours to shorten the [...]

  • Golden Globes Zodiac signs

    Golden Globes Nominees as Zodiac Signs

    The Golden Globes nominees aren’t the only stars of awards season. Variety turned to astrology to assign Zodiac signs to this year’s nominees. Some selections required a little more nuance — Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” is a Virgo with a prominent Sagittarius rising and Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” is a Sagittarius that wishes it were a [...]

  • Morning Show Apple

    Golden Globe Noms: 'The Morning Show' Turns Apple TV Plus Into a Kudos Contender

    “Euphoric” was the word to describe the atmosphere around the Apple TV Plus offices in Culver City, Calif., on Monday morning as staffers awoke to the news that the fledgling service’s cornerstone drama series, “The Morning Show,” had landed three major Golden Globe Award nominations. Apple Worldwide Video had exactly two employees — heads Jamie [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content