Bernard and Doris (DVD)

This classy HBO movie tells the semi-true story of billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke (Sarandon) who employs a new butler, gay Irishman Bernard Lafferty (Fiennes).

Over the years he accompanies her on her jaunts to foreign lands and administers to her needs in the various homes she possesses, though we only see their stately New York country abode here. Over time, they open out to each other and come to care for each other, she distrustful of most people and he a retired alcoholic who occasionally falls off the wagon.

The film imagines this relationship between them and the two stars play their roles to the hilt. At first Lafferty appears very straight laced. He sports a black suit and she accuses him of looking like an undertaker. But as they grow more comfortable in each other's company he progresses to more of an assistant-type role, venturing his opinion on her day to day dealings. He lets his hair grow into a ponytail and wears more colourful, effeminate clothes, at one point parading around her estate in a dress. Her business manager (Rebhorn) resents his intrusion and tries to pay him off so he will leave but it seems the trusty butler's feelings are genuine.

Fiennes is superb in the role, never overdoing it but retaining a masterly control as the character becomes more and more outre. It's a gift of a part and the actor rises to the challenge magnificently. Sarandon is a worthy match for him but her role is more static, her development much more subtle.

See this then for the performances – they won't disappoint, but in the first half there is not enough hustle or bustle to keep one engaged. Director Balaban lets things slow to a crawl when more energy is needed, but things pick up more in the second half. And the production design is splendid, Doris's home brought gloriously to life as we see the vast acreage her estate encompasses. Overall, it's a sophisticated souffle, watchable enough but never moving. A minor effort bolstered immeasurably by the excellent turns from the two leads.

EXTRAS *** Audio commentary with director Bob Balaban; Growing Up Rich: The Real Doris Duke featurette

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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