THE TV MOVIE "Burton and Taylor"
WHEN|WHERE Wednesday night at 9 on BBC America
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Richard Burton (Dominic West) is prepping for a stage version of "King Lear" when he gets a call from an old friend and -- not incidentally -- ex-wife who has just turned 50: Would he like to join her onstage in New York for a revival of "Private Lives," Noël Coward's 1930 comedy about a divorced couple, still in love with each other? He agrees, and eventually learns that his co-star, Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter), whom he hasn't seen in five years, is heavy into pills and as a consequence struggles with her lines. The play goes on (the limited run began in May 1983) and -- even though the headliners are huge -- the reviews are unkind. But at least Liz and Dick finally achieve a cease-fire.
MY SAY "Never, never never never never" is the line, or rather negation, that opens this movie, with a close-up of Burton's (West's) mouth, uttering a snatch of Lear's deathbed speech, and cold, limp Cordelia presumably somewhere off-screen in his arms. The necessity of love ... the impossibility of love: That's the link, and theme writer William Ivory wants to plant in our heads, and does. As such, a sense of doom pervades "Burton and Taylor" -- after all, Lear dies, and so did Burton, a little more than a year after "Private Lives" wrapped.
But what this film really wants to do is reaffirm the necessity side of that equation. Their lives may have been volcanic, their marriages of the serial kind, but some intractable force always brought Burton and Taylor back together -- a force that made them both whole and fractured. This could be the stuff of cliche, except that Bonham Carter and West navigate the roles deftly, as twin towers of narcissism diminished by booze, pills, advancing years and each other.
The conceit of "Private Lives" is clever, too -- plays end, so do great love affairs -- but it also provides an effective framework for a story with a beginning, middle and end. That's a necessity for one as sprawling and operatic as Burton and Taylor's. This one even feels like it's worth telling.
BOTTOM LINE Excellent actors playing excellent actors -- and largely succeeding.