Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are the epitome of Hollywood grandeur and embellished lifestyle. They were the twice-divorced power couple and were known to pamper one another with luxurious gifts and elegance. It was the almost 70 carat pear-shaped diamond and the 33 carat Krupp Diamond that encompassed the grand, public love affair they shared for more than a decade.
The story, set in London and New York in 1983, revolves around their performance in a West End revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, where they star opposite one another. The film stars Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Taylor and Dominic West as Richard Burton. Richard Laxton brilliantly directs the film, with an equally phenomenal script by William Ivory.
Private Lives, a play about a former couple who coincidentally are in adjacent hotel rooms during their respective honeymoons with their new spouses, evokes a great amount of irony that swirls around Taylor and Burton’s own private lives. One striking correlation is that the two actors, like their onstage counter parts, openly display adoring feelings for one another, and then abruptly counteract their emotions by arguing about seemingly unresolved conflicts.
The film focuses on the running of the play, with much emphasis on the personal conversations between Taylor and Burton backstage that unmistakably imitate the play’s dialogue. Their parallel conversations in their respective dressing rooms sway from cynical and brazen to moving and sensitive.
Taylor repeatedly winks at the audience to draw attention to the striking similarities of the play’s events and the main characters’ real private lives. Burton then becomes frustrated with Taylor’s so-called antics and exaggerations brought forward during her performance. The camera angles that Laxton chooses create a direct focus on the curtains opening from the audience’s perspective, as if to lift the curtain, exposing their intimate conversations to the public.
The idea of reviving the play was brought about by Elizabeth herself, who comically reveals during the play’s rehearsal that she had never read over her lines before the first rehearsal. Burton is not pleased by Taylor’s revelation of her not reading the play. She states sassily to him: “I always make it a rule never to look at anything until I’m starring in it.” Taylor’s raw talent for acting is apparent as Bonham Carter takes the giant leap into the role as Elizabeth Taylor.
Perfectly capturing the spirit and personality of her part, Bonham Carter depicts an accurate portrayal of Taylor. As you watch her and Dominic West interact on screen it’s as if the camera lens has gone back in time, revealing Burton and Taylor’s deeply felt emotions towards one another.
Helena Bonham Carter made an appearance at the Hamptons International Film Festival where she discussed her varying acting roles, focusing on her notable roles during the last decade including the The King’s Speech, Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd. When asked during the conversation how she came about playing the role of a legendary, timeless actress, she responded with saying, “I am honoured to be given the opportunity to play her, though my main concern at the time was how would Elizabeth Taylor had felt. I know someone who had known Elizabeth and they had mentioned how she would have been flattered. Elizabeth in fact would have found it hilarious. She loved that kind of attention.”
It’s evident throughout the film that both Burton and Taylor are still very fond of one another; the fact that their passionate relationship bounces back and forth from being tumultuous and intense to endearing and empathetic is what makes the film so gripping and powerful.
There’s a reason why the Lifetime film Liz and Dick did not have the stellar quality that accurately captured the love affair of the longtime couple. Not only was Lindsay Lohan’s portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor deplorable, but the film also desperately tried to narrate through the couple’s famous love affair from beginning to end. In contrast, Burton and Taylor focuses on a specific moment in time which, combined with the complexity of the characters, is all together more successful. This carefully executed BBC adaptation is what the audience truly craves. It illustrates one of the last professional and personal encounters of two of Hollywood’s most renowned icons.