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Monday, 12 May 2014

Classic Film Review: Becket (1964)

Becket is based on the true story of the assassinated Archbishop of Canterbury (Richard Burton) and his relationship with King Henry II (Peter O'Toole). It follows his promotion first to chancellor then to archbishop and the impact that has on his close friendship with the king. The conclusion of the story is, of course, no surprise, but the interplay between the two makes this an exceptional film. The supporting cast includes John Gielgud as King Louis VII of France, Donald Wolfit as Bishop Folliot, David Weston as Brother John and Sian Phillips as Gwendolen. 

The basic facts of the Becket story remain the same but quite a bit has been simplified. The main reason for the initial fracture between Henry and Becket becomes one criminal clergyman when, in reality, the reasons were much more complex. Still, the simplicity works because the main attraction of the story is the relationship between the two protagonists and Burton and O'Toole are nothing short of brilliant. Burton's performance in one particular scene, praying for guidance because he feels trapped between his king and his new role, deserves acclaim. Equally, O'Toole's stand-out scene comes when he, deliberately or otherwise, orders Becket's execution. This isn't to say that their scenes together aren't memorable and effective, just that their individual torture is captivating.

I suppose a common criticism of this film might be that it's rather stagey. It shows in places but this is tempered by some of the external scenes which give a sense of a wider world. The sets are excellent and the costumes beautiful. For the most part the dialogue is effective but, again, the simplicity of argument the film relies on renders it unrealistic in places. Some of the alterations, most notably labeling Becket as a Saxon when his lineage was Norman, are done for dramatic effect and to highlight the peculiarity of the strong relationship between king and friend. On the grounds of historical accuracy it fails but on the grounds of memorability it certainly passes. Becket is another one of those excellent historical dramas of this period to be ranked favourably with A Man for All Seasons (reviewed here).

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