It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that the BBC’s Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton biopic, “Burton and Taylor,” is much better than Lifetime’s “Liz & Dick,” which aired last year.
Starring the perpetually court-ordered Lindsay Lohan, “Liz & Dick” was a celebrity stunt, Lifetime’s wild-eyed attempt to launch what many hoped would be Lohan’s comeback. The film recounted the famous couple’s decades-long relationship, from fatal first moment to final graveyard farewell. General hilarity ensued.
There is nothing even vaguely hilarious about “Burton and Taylor,” which premieres Wednesday on BBC America. It is less a portrait of two combustible stars, played with empathy and breathtaking control by Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, as it is a surprisingly thoughtful excavation of a love that is both undeniable and untenable.
Though not a marketing ploy in itself, “Burton and Taylor” has a celebrity stunt at its center — the 1983 Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” which reunited the pair years after their second divorce and months before Burton’s death. Critically mauled, it was a huge hit. The besotted masses swarmed to see the two stars play what many imagined was a semi-autobiographical tale of old lovers reunited.
This circus-like atmosphere drove Burton crazy. He had quit drinking, was involved with a woman who would become his wife and was preparing to play “King Lear.” Taylor, on the other hand, couldn’t have cared less.
In full pill-popping, Studio 54-visiting, fluffy-dog-walking diva mode, she had hoped — if William Ivory’s script is to be believed — for a rekindling of the famous romance. The audience’s loving reaction helped overcome her insecurity about performing live, and she courted it. (The tack also made Burton furious.)
This is not, however the tale of two thespians and their differing approaches to craft. As with “Private Lives,” “Burton and Taylor” attempts to measure the magnitude of epic love by the dimensions of its aftermath. Five years may have passed since they last saw each other, but when Liz and Dick meet at a party, time falls away (along with Burton’s attempt at sobriety) and they are soon working together again.
Taylor believes their love is unquenchable, uncontrollable. Burton too loves beyond bounds, but for him, the only way to slake an unquenchable desire is to control it. While he conspicuously orders Tab and ignores her attempts to reignite “my Antony,” she swills cocktails and pain pills, slurs her lines and becomes increasingly despondent.
Even so, this is perhaps the least dramatic period of their lives together. They are middle-aged, with grown children, and the days of defying propriety and the Vatican are long behind them. They have become, as symbolized in “Private Lives,” the punch line of their own joke.
As played by Carter and West, Taylor and Burton are each brilliant, charismatic narcissists who love each other as only narcissists can — unsustainably. “We’re addicts,” Burton tells Taylor, and that is true too. A universe cannot have two suns; someone has to be the moon and that role suited neither of them.
It’s difficult to gauge how much fascination viewers still have for the couple, but “Burton and Taylor” is as good as it gets. West lends Burton an emotional weariness that is by turns regal and self-important. Carter does not occupy enough space to capture Taylor’s blend of sexual bombast and beauty, but she captures the warmth, generosity, loyalty and frankness that made the star beloved despite her many shortcomings.
In one lovely scene, Taylor chastises Burton for being rude to her assistant, forcing him to apologize. It isn’t just a power play, although there is some of that; Taylor really does believe in gratitude, just as she believes in forgiveness. She gave as good as she required, and she required a lot.
‘Burton and Taylor’
Where: BBC America
When: 9 and 11 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)