Helena Bonham Carter Is Basically Incredible as Liz Taylor

Reviews of the latest films.
Oct. 16 2013 5:28 PM

Burton and Taylor

Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter star as the poster children for how fame warps stars.

Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Taylor and Dominic West as Richard Burton.
Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Taylor and Dominic West as Richard Burton.

Courtesy BBC America

Burton and Taylor, the second TV movie this year about the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, airs on BBC America Wednesday night. The previous dramatization, Lifetime’s Liz & Dick, starred Lindsay Lohan as Taylor and risibly chronicled the pair’s entire relationship, beginning with their toga meet-cute on the set of Cleopatra. The melancholic Burton and Taylor stars Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West, and it focuses specifically on a few weeks in 1983 when the two, divorced and in their 50s, reunited professionally to star in Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway. Sometimes the near simultaneous release of two movies of a similar subject undermines them both—think Armageddon and Deep Impact, or the dueling Prefontaine films—but any comparison between Liz & Dick and Burton and Taylor immediately glorifies Burton and Taylor, a relatively restrained, non-campy duet that does not feature Lindsay Lohan in a fright wig, just Bonham Carter nailing Taylor’s helium-inflected but bawdily down-to-earth cadences. (In this movie, as with most of Bonham Carter’s work, I am reminded that her initials alone make her a HBIC.

Eschewing the height of Le Scandale, Burton and Taylor focuses on a quieter, less-sexy, less-triumphant moment in the pair’s love story. They are middle-aged, dancing to disco, not sleeping together, in relationships with other people, ensconced in various addictions, and, as celebrities, well into the trashy phase of their fame, a state of being the staging of Private Lives did nothing to remediate. (Here’s a New York magazine story about Taylor at the time that highlights just how gossipy the production was.) Private Lives is a comedy about a divorced couple, newly married to other people, who passionately, dysfunctionally fall back into bed together, a tale that, obviously, tracked closely with the real story of Burton and Taylor. (In the play, as in life, the woman Burton left for Taylor was named Sybil.)

In Burton and Taylor, Burton is frustrated by the parallels: He insists that Taylor not play to the crowd, not winkingly acknowledge that the audience is there to see Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, not their characters, in bed. But Taylor takes the opposite view, arguing that if that’s what the audience wants to see, then that’s what the audience should get. Simply by existing, Burton and Taylor takes Taylor’s side of the argument: What, after all, is the appeal of a movie like Burton and Taylor except as front row seat to Liz and Dick’s private lives?


If, however, you are not already interested in Burton and Taylor’s private lives, Burton and Taylor may feel extremely wan and floppy: a series of scenes in which two people behave badly toward  each other while stutter-stepping toward nothing more than an emotionally honest conversation. The performances, Bonham Carter’s in particular, are very fine, but the dramatic stakes are very low. As with last year’s My Week with Marilyn, Burton and Taylor avoids retreading familiar material by picking a relatively quiet, unexplored interlude in a celebrity’s life—the stuff of tasteful restraint, but not exactly scintillating story. And it only scans as tasteful restraint if the audience can fill in all the salacious history for themselves.

For those who can, Burton and Taylor is much more effective. The movie accentuates the increasingly salient feature of their famous romance, which was not its glamour, but its tragedy. Their love affair, passionate as it was, established them forever in our collective memory as lovers, not thespians. Burton, one of the greatest stage actors of his generation, threw his talent into largely mediocre movies and Elizabeth. Taylor, capable of extraordinary work, by the last decades of her life was better known for her multiple marriages than her films. The two are the poster couple for the way fame warps one’s life and work. Burton and Taylor is the poster.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.



The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative


Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.


Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?