Classy but still just a smidge sordid, “Burton and Taylor” (airing Wednesday night on BBC America) tells a sad but conclusive story about the last time the married-divorced-remarried-divorced acting legends worked together and broke each other’s hearts in the process, headlining a short-lived 1983 Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.”
The ever-malleable Helena Bonham Carter (“The King’s Speech,” the “Harry Potter” films) plays the 50-ish Liz, coasting on pills and drink, staring at the downhill slope of fame. Dominic West (“The Hour,” “The Wire”) makes a handsome Richard, gray at the temples and wearing the mileage of a hard-driven celebrityhood. His body is giving out, and his mind still aches for the chance to play King Lear on a grand stage.
Instead, he’s stuck with her for one last go-around. Rooted in facts (but also freed from them whenever it likes), “Burton and Taylor” is intelligently winnowed down to a moment in time, firmly planting itself in the last days of disco. Unlike Lifetime’s godawful “Liz and Dick” movie last year (which starred Lindsay Lohan, with and without irony), “Burton and Taylor” has a defined mission as an epilogue of sorts to a rather unhappy book, a final encounter between two lovers who at last decided they were all wrong for each other.
This narrowed focus should serve as a lesson to all makers of biographical films. By assuming its audience has a working knowledge of the Liz-and-Dick epic, “Burton and Taylor” (which aired earlier this year in Britain) is able to zoom in on an event that usually occupies a couple of sentences in the quick sketches of their lives. In this telling, it’s Taylor who lures Burton back into her perfumey sphere, dangling the Coward play as bait.
Burton, doing his best at this point to stay sober, becomes exasperated at the first rehearsal, when it’s clear that Taylor has never read the play and is ill-prepared for the rigors of the stage. Once more, it’s up to him to carry her through — and she’s a little more zaftig than yesteryear.
Or was it she who carried him? “Burton and Taylor” is playful on this point, acknowledging that the real give-and-take arrangement between the two is known only to them (he died in 1984, a year after “Private Lives” closed after 63 performances; she died in 2011). The film’s biggest license is to take us into their neighboring dressing rooms, where tears are shed and empty vodka bottles are hurled. Would you expect any less from a Liz-and-Dick production?
It’s all too vulnerable to overblown dramatics, but “Burton and Taylor” succeeds on the performances of its leads. Bonham Carter offers up a sympathetic Liz who is in the process of squandering her talent; West makes Burton’s brokenness seem like a noble resignation. And both seem surprised that each other’s company is no longer the cure for what ails them.
(two hours) airs Wednesday at 9 p.m.
on BBC America.