While watching Bernard and Doris I waited for the other shoe to drop. Hell, I was even waiting for a glass to be thrown. I was waiting for any hint of drama, but there was no drama to be had. Thus is the problem with Bob Balaban's telefilm about the relationship between billionaire philanthropist Doris Duke and her butler and caregiver Bernard Lafferty; it is a bore.
Duke (played by Susan Sarandon) isn't a diva here. She drinks a little too much occasionally. She likes things her way, and she doesn't like waste. We first meet Duke when she fires her butler for informing her that he is going to throw out food she refused. He didn't pay for that food, she reminds him and then gives him the boot.
Enter Lafferty (Ralph Fiennes), a mysterious, unassuming fellow who just happened to work for Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee. Without asking or without being offered the job, Lafferty begins to serve Duke, who quickly takes him on once she's sober enough to make the decision. Lafferty, who is gay, isn't susceptible to Duke's usual fuck and fire antics. Instead a friendship develops that, though dubious in the eyes of most of her handlers, both she and Bernard understand.
The film flirts with the idea that Lafferty is scheming to cash in on Duke's inevitable death (which he does). It nearly goes so far as to make Duke out to be a hardcore lush and a insatiable cougar. It sniffs around the idea that Duke had a wild outburst now and then, even if she is a solid, considerate figure. Then it bludgeons us with Lafferty's alcoholism, which isn't that interesting.
There's no doubt that Duke is an incredibly intriguing figure, but the film plays out like a badly staged theatrical production without any theatrics. The single location (Duke's estate) is cramped and claustrophobic, and we merely hear voice-over references to Duke's exotic exploits.
There's a moment where memos to the staff from Lafferty, who is out globe-trotting with Duke in southeast Asia, are narrated to the audience. Instead of getting to see the adventuring, we watch the staff at the estate put dust sheets over her antique furniture. There's a sense that the relationship really blossomed during those months away, but we don't get to see it. We remain disconnected, and even talented performers like Fiennes and Sarandon can't draw us in.
Bernard and Doris airs Saturday, February 9 at 8 p.m. on HBO.