When people say they don't make movies like that anymore, "Bernard and Doris" is the kind of movie they mean. Human. Intimate. Involving. Surprising. Rich in character, emotional connection, sense of place. A movie that knows what it wants to do, and does it, and it's actually worth doing.
HBO's acquired feature gem (which was first showcased at last year's Hamptons International Film Festival) feels so real, you can nearly smell the booze on the breath of Susan Sarandon as lonely New Jersey heiress Doris Duke and Ralph Fiennes as the gay Irish butler she takes into her home, and her heart - but not the way you think.
Though director Bob Balaban says in HBO press notes that this is a love story, it's actually a companion story, which makes it all the more fresh and fertile. His imagined involvement between Duke and Bernard Lafferty, whom she controversially named executor of her sizable estate, is that of soul mates who don't sleep together, yet find in each other an acute sort of kindred spirit, despite calling each other forever by their last names, in a master-servant mode that never really breaches that societal boundary.
"Some of the following is based on fact," screenwriter Hugh Costello's script confesses from the on-screen legend that kicks off the film, alerting us about what Balaban makes clear in HBO's director's notes: "I was interested in portraying an emotionally believable and dramatically satisfying relationship. Not a factually accurate one."
Yet its human resonance rings profoundly true. Starting with deft performers like Sarandon (Oscar winner for "Dead Man Walking") and Fiennes (nominated for "The English Patient" and "Schindler's List") is an enormous gift, but so is the setting in which they flesh out their characters. Old Westbury Gardens served as Duke's west Jersey estate for this low-budget, quick-shoot drama. In the location's leafy, woody, marble and art-filled, hushed old-money graciousness, both inside and out, the strapped production team staged "guerrilla filmmaking," as HBO quotes Sarandon. And perhaps that pressure in such evocative confines bonded them in the instinctive way we watch Duke and Lafferty's attachment take shape.
It's interesting that such an outwardly claustrophobic project exudes such internal breathing room. Balaban and his stars don't enact events or even crucial moments. They simply let their characters exist within the 1987-1993 time frame of their pairing, from haphazard meeting to offhand connection, on to gingerly poking into each other's mettle and peculiarly taking care of one another - both prone to drink, both achingly lonely, yet neither judged by the film nor presenting overt motivations for the actions that unfold.
"Bernard and Doris" chooses not to resolve the riddle of what seemed to be Duke's trust in this improbable source, or to speculate about manipulation on Lafferty's part. It simply lets two viscerally intriguing people live two might-have-been lives that ours are richer for having intersected.
BERNARD AND DORIS. Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes shine in the unlikely relationship of reclusive heiress Doris Duke and the Irish butler she would make executor of her multimillion-dollar estate. Speculative drama filmed at Old Westbury Gardens premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. EST on HBO.