BBC America’s ‘Burton and Taylor’ lacks their passion


McClatchy Washington Bureau

Actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were legends for all time.

Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter are brilliant actors in their own right.

So why is “Burton and Taylor,” premiering Wednesday on BBC America, so dull?

Noted stage actor Burton was cast in the 1963 movie “Cleopatra” as Mark Anthony, the Roman general who became one of Cleopatra’s lovers. Taylor was the alluring Cleopatra.

Their attraction to each other became legendary, overshadowing the film that went on to be one of the most expensive of all time, nearly bankrupting a film studio.

Both Burton and Taylor divorced their spouses and married in 1964. That marriage lasted until their 1974 divorce. A second marriage in 1975 lasted until 1976.

By the time of “Burton and Taylor,” in 1983, they had been divorced for almost seven years. Despite their personal history, they decided to collaborate in playwright Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” on Broadway.

The plot of “Private Lives” is that a divorced couple find themselves in adjacent rooms while on honeymoon with their new spouses. Unfortunately, they are still attracted to each other.

In “Burton and Taylor,” Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter) talks a reluctant Burton (West) into doing the play. Bonham Carter plays her as imperious, needy, practical, and, at her very core, still in love with her former spouse.

Burton is the complete professional theater actor, here for the job and wary of the problems of working with his former wife, knowing her needs, desires and personality. He has moved on from their marriages in a way Taylor has not. He has a new woman in his life, Sally, whom he marries late in the “Burton and Taylor.” He struggles with his drinking.

West and Bonham Carter do masterful jobs of re-enacting two masterful actors acting in a noteworthy play despite their personal struggles and emotional turmoil, but the constant struggles get tedious to watch. The recreation of the period of “Private Lives” is done well, but the flashbacks to earlier periods are not clearly marked. A few dates might have helped. And a few more comments from the people on the sidelines, watching this train wreck happen, might have given some insight.

Burton would die at 58 in 1984 from a brain hemorrhage. Taylor, 79, passed away in 2011.

Their legends live on, but “Burton and Taylor” is for those who already know the back-story.

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