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In From the Cold? A Portrait of Richard Burton

****
1988

‘a gold-mine for fans of the Welsh actor’

I get why Criterion disks are so valued by cineastes, but the BFI’s re-issues can be a real treasure trove for those seeking granular information about beloved films. Reviewed on this blog yesterday, Equus is a film that fascinates me, and while this BFI two disc re-issue features an informed commentary, plus a good 40 minute discussion with Peter Firth (recorded during lockdown) and a welcome, feature-length Guardian Lecture from Sidney Lumet, what intrigued me most was the inclusion of Tony Palmer’s 1988 documentary about Richard Burton, which stuck me as worth a review on its own merits. While there are flaws in Palmer’s approach, it’s a gold-mine for fans of the Welsh actor, with a melange of fresh interviews with friends and family, unseen news clips and well-chosen greatest-hits moments on film from Burton’s storied career.

Burton was a number-one box-office star who could summon a charisma and intensity that few actors could imagine; comparisons to boxers and poets seem spot-on. He was a force of nature off-screen, although at least one interviewee (Lauren Bacall) clearly disapproves of the way he conducted himself. Reading his diaries, it’s clear that Burton had an erroneous confidence in his own stamina, perhaps based on his coal-mining father’s sturdy constitution. Burton smoked cartons of cigarettes every day, drank like a fish, and fully expected to complete his day’s work in a regular state of inebriation. From around 1968 onwards, his intoxication took a heavy toll on the standard of his work, and his performance in Equus is probably the best of a decade of largely terrible work.

Palmer had worked with Burton on his epic Wagner, and has access to a number of interview clips of the man himself, in good form and full of anecdotes which reflect the bonhomie of the time; Sir John Gielgud also contributes a few belters. A pattern emerges through which allegations are made about Burton’s failure to reach his potential, with Burton’s friend Melvyn Bragg on hand to rebuff naysayers with some well-crafted argument. There’s also some great clips of Burton and Taylor in their pomp, snapping back at the world’s press while they carried on an extra-marital relationship that caused a political storm.

In From the Cold? is weakened by some of-its-time insight; it’s regrettable the way Palmer frames Burton’s story with a coda involving his daughter, described as ‘retarded’ here in a shocking use of language. It’s probably best to view this documentary as a portrait of how Burton was viewed immediately after his death, since it’s likely that a more generous verdict could be reached with a bit more perspective and compassion. Nevertheless, this is a sumptuous package to accompany a great film, and an essential purchase for anyone who admires Burton’s work.

Thanks to the BFI for access to this blu-ray. Link below.

 

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  1. I always remember Burton’s performance in Jeff Wayne’s musical version of the War of the Worlds. I can’t count the number of times I played that record. But I agree, Burton truly was an amazing actor and has definitely had some terrific roles😊

    • I like that record very much, although the Ullah stuff gets a bit much! He had a truly great voice, sampling potential for sure!

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