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 Noël Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway.
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. 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?