Perhaps appropriately, BBC America follows the Lifetime movie “Liz & Dick” — half biopic, half Lindsay Lohan exploitation showcase — with “Burton and Taylor,” which not only employs the surnames of the celebrated couple but flips the order. That makes sense, since this is a more grown-up movie, zeroing in on a narrow stretch near the end of their light-switch romance, using that as a window into their tumultuous whirlwind of a relationship. This British import also has well-matched stars in Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, the first capturing Burton’s weariness, the latter almost uncannily replicating Taylor’s voice.
The movie picks up in 1983, with Taylor (still ravishing at 50) and Burton reunited — professionally, that is — as they agree to star in a Broadway production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” He, of course, is the consummate stage professional — a boozer, yes, but an actor’s actor.
By contrast, his former wife is a movie star, in almost a “My Favorite Year” kind of way, with all the trappings and privilege that entails. And at this moment she’s not faring quite so well in managing her addictions, resulting in late arrivals at the theater and a lack of preparation that drives Burton batty.
“You’re a bloody menace,” he snaps at her, later wondering — as Taylor shows up with yapping dogs and a parrot in tow — “Is she an actress or a bloody zoo?”
The critics harpoon the production (Burton describes them in the most colorful terms imaginable), but audiences flock to it — not for the quality of the work, alas, but because of the tabloid element surrounding its stars. That’s a point Taylor rather sharply drives home by skipping a performance at the last minute, with the company left to play in front of a half-empty theater as walkouts demand refunds.
West doesn’t much resemble Burton, but he embodies him, capturing a proud man who is both battle-scarred and spent, like a bullfighter who’s been gored a few times too many. He’s the real talent — an attribute the movie does a nice job of conveying — but she’s a force of nature, albeit one who has never gotten over him.
Directed by Richard Laxton and written by William Ivory, “Burton and Taylor” can’t help but feel somewhat slight, due to its structure and focus — puttying in gaps as the two reminisce, yes, but largely relying on the audience to possess some familiarity with the central duo and their colorful history. (On the plus side, that spares the producers the expense of trying to replicate the sets from “Cleopatra.”)
Held up against the recent Lifetime pic, though, this one can’t help but feel more satisfying, if melancholy, a sense reinforced by the lengthy closing scroll.
Here were two people on top of the world who lived under a microscope. The view might have been fabulous, but it didn’t take much of a slip to wind up singed.