Set in 1930s Shanghai, where a blind American diplomat develops a curious relationship with a young Russian refugee who works odd -- and sometimes illicit -- jobs to support members of her dead husband's aristocratic family.
Sympathetic look loosely based on the relationship between tobacco heiress, Doris Duke (1912-1993) - think Duke University - and her shy butler, Bernard Lafferty. The icy and mercurial Duke fires her butler for serving a chilled cantaloupe; the agency sends Lafferty, formerly household staff to Liz Taylor and to Peggy Lee. He's an alcoholic, fresh out of rehab. He gradually becomes Duke's gay alter ego as she romps through life sleeping with young men, making shrewd decisions quickly, managing her fortune and orchids as Lafferty manages her New Jersey estate. With a wine cellar to die for, Bernard falls off the wagon. Can he pull himself together when Doris needs him? Written by
When Doris is reading her will, she identifies her city of residence as Somerville, New Jersey. Duke Farms, the site of Duke's residence, is actually in neighboring Hillsborough, New Jersey. Duke Farm now operates as a nature preserve and public park. See more »
All right: Susan Sarandon does not resemble the real Doris Duke and is a good 15 years younger and a lot healthier looking than Duke was in the mid-1980's through 1993, when the story takes place; and granted, Ralph Fiennes is far more charming and appealing than the actual Bernard Lafferty. But this movie works because of those two central characters on which the scenario focuses to the exclusion of almost all else. The screenwriter deftly conveys the jet-set lifestyle and grandly tumultuous history of Doris Duke without actually moving us from location to location and decade to decade and we are able to concentrate on what is really a peculiarly moving love story. Duke's relationships with various hangers-on and an adopted daughter are left out entirely. If you are looking for a faithful bio, forget it. If you are looking for a solidly pleasing film with top-notch performances, pounce!
Sarandon delivers the goods in spades, creating a shrewd and intelligent, bristling flesh and blood woman so wealthy and powerful she answers to no one but suffers from those psychic afflictions known only to the super-rich. Her self-administered therapies include astrology, a fanatical devotion to the care of exotic plants (particularly orchids), travel, indiscriminate sex with a succession of boy toys, and of course massive doses of booze and other drugs to keep going from one day to the next. But she is also intelligent, shrewd, a remarkable businesswoman and connoisseur of the fine arts, all convincingly depicted in this film. It's damned entertaining to watch her but if you think about it, no one of her age with that kind of serious drug dependency could look that good. Fiennes matches her every step of the way with a kind of perturbed restraint as the lonely, passive, alcoholic butler. He says at one point that what he wants from Duke is not her money, but just to take care of her. This utterance is completely believable. Unlike the 1999 TV movie about the same pair starring Lauren Bacall and Richard Chamberlain, this butler is much more ambiguous and definitely not a sadistic manipulator.
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