The ironic thing about “The V.I.P.s” is that what was the big selling point for the film at the time it was released – the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – is by far the most tedious, ill-conceived and even embarrassing thing about it. Terence Rattigan was a very popular British playwright in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and his plays are undergoing a revival in England this year (2011), but the entire Liz-Dick-Louis Jourdan love triangle is soap opera at its worst. The dialog is brittle and stilted, and the actors (Burton especially) are encouraged to suffer amidst luxurious surroundings. Without spoiling the ending, I will say that the final shot, which I assume was meant to be a happy ending, reminds me of the brilliantly ambiguous final shot of “The Graduate”, which was not.
It’s a shame, too, because the other major plot line of the film, involving an Australian businessman trying to save his company with the help of his silently adoring secretary, is actually quite well done, despite the fairly clichéd plot line. The dialog is less artificial, and the performances by Rod Taylor and particularly Maggie Smith are superb. Rod Taylor was an under-appreciated actor, I think, much better than many of the vehicles he starred in. Maggie Smith is just one of the greats – it was when, as a teenager, I saw her in this and “Hot Millions” that I fell in love with her. In fact, the most electrifying and beautifully acted (and directed) scene in the film is the short but absolutely pivotal encounter between Smith and Burton.
The Orson Welles storyline about a film producer trying to get out of England to avoid taxation is, frankly, a waste of time and film. Welles is entertaining, but nothing about the scene or his performance is anything more than skin-deep.
Margaret Rutherford won her Oscar as a befuddled and broke old noblewoman trying to save her ancestral home. There’s nothing in her performance that she hadn’t done many times, and peerlessly, before, but she is very funny and, by the end, quite touching.
The production values are sky-high, and there is a platoon of first-rate British character actors (and David Frost) in support of the elegant stars, but it’s all a little like biting into a beautiful chocolate and finding the center to be stale and inedible.