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.