Review: Doctor Faustus

DVD: Doctor Faustus (1967)

In the late 1960’s Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were the most famous couple in the world, probably along the lines of Kardashians, only they, unlike the Kardashian’s, had talent. Coming off the back of the critical and box office success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’? ,the world was RichBeths’s (Dickliz? Lizard?) oyster. And of course, this is normally where trouble starts.

Had Richard Burton been born into a different family he may have been a writer, a poet, an ‘intellectual’, as he was undoubtedly a clever man who eventually became self-educated, but being born into a mining family in South Wales it was only luck and the attention of his schoolteacher that enabled him to escape and become an actor.

Burton’s love of the classics – Shakespeare, Marlow, Donne, was his lifelong passion (besides booze), and with his boosted fame (Liz was a BIG star, he caught her coat tails by association) he was finally in a position to make some dream projects, one of them being Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. A cautionary tale of a magician/ alchemist who sells his soul to the devil for more knowledge and power, and to shag the woman of his dreams (Liz). For years Burton had longed to play Doctor Faustus and in 1966 he got the opportunity to do this in a Nevill Coghill directed production of the play featuring Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Helen of Troy. This was the first time the actress would actually be acting on stage in front of a live audience.
Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as Helen of Troy in this film is wordless but she still manages to make a big impact on screen, she is mesmerizing, but of course she is, she’s Elizabeth Taylor.

I suppose one could say that this film is one of Burton’s love letters to the English language and the dramatic arts of Britain, but unfortunately you could also say that this is a bit of a vanity project for Burton. It’s obvious he’s enjoying playing the role but ultimately it’s a very boring film, and I do think this is one of those unfilmable plays and the only purpose of this rather turgid movie is to help A level students hear the text.

Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet came out the same year, followed by Roman Polanski’s Macbeth which came out 3 years later, both of which are far superior to Faustus, although there would be a gap of 30 years until Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet arrived to break the mold for Shakespearean film.

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Review by Tina (co-host of 60 Minutes With) from a disc kindly supplied by Fabulous Films.