Will we miss the BBC4 biopic? Judging by Burton and Taylor, yes, I think we will

Come on Tony Hall! Trim a few salaries from the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and you'll be a hero: it's that simple.

Burton and Taylor
BBC4
 
So, farewell then, the BBC4 biopic – unless the high-ups wake up and give you a reprieve. (Come on Tony Hall! Save the BBC4 biopic, get Test cricket back on the BBC, find a way to trim the salaries of Jeremy Clarkson and a few others, and you’ll be a hero: it’s that simple.) Will we miss you? Yes, I think we will. 
 
Naturally, there have been a few misses. I wasn’t mad about Christopher Eccleston doing John Lennon (creepy), and it was hard to care too much when Trevor Eve played the TV host Hughie Green, magnificent though his performance was. But there were tons of hits, too. My highlights: The Long Walk to Finchley, starring the scuttling Andrea Riseborough as a young Margaret Thatcher, and Fantabulosa! in which Michael Sheen, flared of nostril and tight of trouser, was a dead ringer for poor, sad Kenneth Williams.
 
The last ever BBC biopic starred Dominic West as Richard Burton and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Taylor (22 July, 9pm). Wow. I didn’t entirely buy Bonham Carter as Taylor, though her acting was superlative (film-star spoilt is harder to play convincingly than you might think). But West, I totally bought. It was like watching Burton only . . . better. West is a more accomplished actor than Burton, or at any rate, a less hammy one, and he is twice as sexy, if you ask me. The voice – coal wrapped in velvet – was perfect (“the theatrical equivalent of a big cock,” said this version of Burton, when Taylor praised it), and the manner was suitably retro: Terry-Thomas meets Dylan Thomas. I can’t believe there is a man alive who looks better in a camel pea coat than West.
 
The best biopics are built around an extended moment, not the entirety of a life. In this case, its writer, William Ivory, had landed on 1983, when Burton and Taylor, already twice married and twice divorced, appeared together on Broadway in a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. The production was a commercial smash hit – the crowds longing, as Burton put it, “to see us happen in front of them” – but a critical disaster, the press lining up to laugh at Taylor’s bizarre accent and weird posture (she was addicted to various pills by this stage). 
 
Shortly after the production ended, Taylor was admitted to the Betty Ford Clinic for rehab. Burton, meanwhile, retreated to Switzerland with his new wife, Sally – where, nine months later, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of just 58. 
 
Ivory’s writing was great. I’ve never had a problem understanding why Taylor was attracted to Burton; he was a real man – “You’re all the men who ever lived,” as Ivory had it – and he wouldn’t let her get away with stuff. But only as I watched this film did I grasp why he kept coming back for more. As Ivory had him explain, he was able to trust Taylor with his most abject side – being such a mess herself, she was not one to judge. And the best stage actor of his generation admired her way with the camera. He felt, unlike some, that she really could act. In one scene of the biopic, he told his assistant about Cleopatra, the 1964 picture on which he and Taylor first met. She was, he recalled, “all tits and make-up” and she seemed, as they said their respective lines, hardly to be moving at all: “I thought she’d had a bloody stroke, or something.” But then he saw the rushes, and he realised that she didn’t have to move. “She just became Cleopatra.”
 
Somehow, you believed this line, for all that it followed an excruciating rehearsal scene in which Taylor appeared with her entourage and promptly admitted that she hadn’t yet read Private Lives. (Burton was exasperated by this but not for his own sake so much as for hers: he knew she was about to make a fool of herself and couldn’t bear it.) 
 
But perhaps this feeling – one’s sense that Burton’s fondness for Taylor was realitybased and ongoing rather than a romantic fiction – also had something to do with the fact that, naughtily, the BBC costume department had made Bonham Carter look more Taylor circa 1973 than Taylor circa 1983. No cliff-sized shoulder pads, no megaperm, no radar-sized dangly earrings: this was a good taste version of Eighties Taylor and it made you feel sad for her, rather than – as was really the case – ever so slightly repulsed.
 
Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West as Burton and Taylor. Photograph: BBC/Gustavo Papaleo.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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