“Burton and Taylor” a fitting elegy for Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton’s romance

Let’s just get this out of the way immediately: Burton and Taylor ain’t Liz & Dick.

Last year’s notorious Lifetime biopic starring Lindsay Lohan was about as sudsy and over-the-top as we wanted it to be — truly, no vase was safe on that set — but now BBC America is chiming in with a much more serious, thoughtful take on the indomitable romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Where Liz & Dick was histrionic, Burton and Taylor is moody and subdued. While Lohan read her lines like she was reciting a speech, Helena Bonham Carter inhabits the role to the point where you can practically smell the booze emanating off the screen. Dominic West might appear a bit too strapping to portray Burton’s physical frailty, but emotionally he paints a heartbreaking portrait of a proud lion tamed by the ravages of age.

The film is set as the pair announce what would be their final project together, the 1983 stage revival of Noel Coward’s bedroom farce Private Lives. Interest was incredibly high in seeing the twice-married, twice-divorced couple reunited, especially in a play involving former spouses falling back into each other’s arms. Each night the audience rooted that what was happening onstage would lead to an offstage reconciliation as well, despite the fact that Burton had finally moved on, kicking alcohol and finding happiness with his fourth wife, Sally.

But there is trouble from the start as Taylor shows up to rehearsals under the influence and not having read the play. Then once the performances begin she plays to the crowd, winking at the double meanings of the words as Burton seethes, wishing he were somewhere doing King Lear instead.

Burton and Taylor accomplishes the difficult task of taking two icons with equal footing in the worlds of dramatic arts and tabloid sensationalism, and rendering them as real people.

Bonham Carter says she was leery about playing such a recognizable figure, especially since she believes she doesn’t resemble Taylor all that much. But the script won her over, as well as a chance to get to know the people behind the tabloids. “The whole piece is a sort of elegy to their love in a way but that was in the writing,” she told reporters recently. “I wouldn’t dream of playing anyone with the intention to trash them. And I came out with even more respect than I had for Elizabeth and for both of them than I had going in, because I got to know a hell of a lot more about them.”

Burton and Taylor premieres at 9pm ET Wednesday, Oct. 16, on BBC America.

Burton and Taylor Dominic West Helena Bonham Carter BBC America
© BBC 2013 Credit: Gustavo Papaleo

© BBC 2013 Credit: Gustavo Papaleo