There's something wonderfully vague about the relationship at the center of HBO's "Bernard and Doris," tonight at 8. He's her submissive butler, a gay Irish man with a personality as nebulous as a cloud. She is tobacco heiress Doris Duke, as sharp and demanding as a migraine. And yet they fit together, complementary pieces, opposites attracted.
This new movie, built on a thrilling performance by Ralph Fiennes, shows us their affinity and, wisely, never explains it to us. The script, by Hugh Costello, doesn't have Doris and Bernard commenting about their bond, or others describing it for our benefit. We never know if Fiennes's Bernard Lafferty is deliberately scheming his way into her will - he would wind up as the well-compensated trustee - or whether, as he tells her, "I just want to take care of you." And then we never know if Duke, played with plenty of brass by Susan Sarandon, is suspicious of him or too intoxicated by her power over him. All we know is that they both subsume and liberate each other.
Fiennes manages to make Bernard blandly mysterious and yet hard not to watch closely. At first, this gentle man seems to have no past, and barely a present. He's a cipher, stumbling after "Miss Duke" and taking her verbal abuse with almost creepy pleasure. We know he worked for Peggy Lee and Elizabeth Taylor, and he is quietly dazzled by strong women. But the longer Bernard is with Duke, the more he is emboldened to reveal himself, his alcoholism, and his poor background. She draws him out of the personality closet.
And sometimes he comes out wearing women's clothing. Fiennes shows how Bernard's physical manner evolves as he lets his hair grow, has his ears pierced, and, alas, begins to party with Duke. At one point, she gives him a caftan, he puts it on, and he gushes in an unusual display, "I feel like Lawrence of Arabia!" Because Fiennes has such an unshakably dignified manner, "Bernard and Doris" doesn't dissolve into a garish portrait of some kind of gender-bucking monster. The changes in him, as he takes the front row to her billionaire lifestyle, are subtle, incremental, and, at one point when he's wearing a purple skirt and an orange top, lightly comic.
Sarandon is just right as Doris - nasty, funny, intrepid, hard-drinking, single-minded, lonely. She doesn't adopt the fine shadings that distinguish Fiennes's performance, but she gives the movie brio and ballast. Bernard is one of the few men in her life who, because he is gay, she cannot exploit sexually, even though she'd like to. Together, they tend to her orchids and unearth common ground - it's as if their radically different childhoods enable them to relax together. Their intimacy works because they don't judge each other, even though they're both damaged people.
Later in the movie, Bernard has some trouble keeping the butler-boss boundaries straight, while Doris, always separated from the world by a rarefied life of privilege, is an expert at maintaining them. Still, their connection endures, and when Duke dies in 1993, their story becomes the legendary scandal of the heiress who was fooled by her butler into leaving him control of her fortune. But "Bernard and Doris" is about how the truth behind tabloid tales can actually be ineffable and resistant to headline treatment. The dynamic imagined between Bernard and Doris in this psychological drama has more to do with identity struggles and meeting needs than simple TV-movie-of-the-week bamboozlement.
"Bernard and Doris" is a piece for two players, although we see a few of Doris's lovers, financial people, and servants on the periphery. It gives Fiennes and Sarandon the chance to focus on their uncanny interplay without having to bring in external plot developments or characters. With the help of director Bob Balaban's generous pacing, and a sometimes wry tone that recalls "Reversal of Fortune," the two actors spell out a strange and unfamiliar relationship in looks, pauses, and gestures.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.