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You have to be of a certain age to remember firsthand the tornado of publicity that erupted when Liz Taylor, the former child star turned screen vamp, first met British stage star Richard Burton on the set of the 1963 movie Cleopatra. But it's still one of Hollywood's most famous and inescapable love stories.
He played Mark Antony, she played the Queen of the Nile, and just like their onscreen characters, they fell in love. Though Liz and Dick were married to others at the time, they began a torrid affair, the coverage of which spread outside the gossip columns. Eventually, they divorced their spouses and got married. After 10 years and many films together, they divorced — then, after a while, married each other a second time, then got divorced again. That all happened by 1976.
In the early '80s, Liz and Dick decided to reunite once again — but this time, only professionally, as the stars of a limited-run Broadway revival of the Noel Coward comedy Private Lives. The play was about a long-divorced couple who meet while on honeymoons with new spouses — but whose love for one another is rekindled during the chance encounter.
Liz, who was popping pills and drinking at the time, may have wished for life to imitate art. Dick, newly sober, considered Liz one more compelling addiction it was wiser for him to avoid. And it's this period of their lives that screenwriter William Ivory examines in the new BBC America telemovie import, Burton and Taylor.
It's a highly entertaining study, for two reasons. One is the decision to peek at the private lives of these very public figures through such a tiny, fixed peephole. It's much more satisfying than watching a boring by-the-numbers re-creation of career highlights, like last year's horrible Lifetime telemovie, Liz & Dick, starring Lindsay Lohan. That was more focused on getting the costumes and makeup right than caring about the performances or character insights. Burton and Taylor, though, stays in one place long enough to make us feel their emotions — and, because of the excellent performances, believe them.
The performances are the other reason this drama works. The stars of Burton and Taylor sound like unlikely choices, but they mesh perfectly. Helena Bonham Carter, who has spent much of the past decade playing cartoonish characters for Tim Burton and others, plays Liz with a fire, and a vulnerability, that quickly make the impersonation succeed. And as Richard Burton, one of the most commanding and forceful actors of his generation, the movie casts Dominic West, whom fans of The Wire know well as Detective McNulty.
Here, the native British actor gets to drop the accent he used for that HBO series and approximate Richard Burton's gravelly, velvety tones. West does it so well that he, too, quickly makes you forget about the performer and get drawn into the often intimate action.
Burton and Taylor is as serious as last year's Liz & Dick telemovie was campy. For writer Ivory and director Richard Laxton, it's easily a career best. For the stars, it's one more triumph to add to their already impressive resumes. And for other TV writers and producers looking to dramatize the lives of famous figures, Burton and Taylor — like Steven Spielberg's narrowly focused movie biography of Lincoln — serves as a very clear lesson. Sometimes, when deciding how much of a life to examine, less very definitely is more.