Friday, March 7, 2014

Film Review: Becket (1964)

Becket (1964) directed by Peter Glenville

After the immensely popular review series "movies I meant to see last summer" (actually, I'm not sure it was all that popular but I enjoyed doing it), I've come up with a list of movies for Lent. If you read Happy Catholic, you've seen an awesome list of movies for Lent. As for my choices, they are a bit more mundane--they are movies I own on DVD but either haven't watched yet or haven't watched in far too long. Here's the first...

Becket tells the story of St. Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England. Becket, at the beginning of the story, is a close friend of the king, though they are more like drinking/wenching/carousing buddies than lordly nobility. To be sure, the king does the work of running the kingdom, which includes reclaiming some of Normandy from French rule. Henry is the great grandson of William the Conqueror, who united England under Norman rule in the late 1000s. Becket, by contrast, is a Saxon, one of the conquered people. He has risen up to a level of influence by his quick wits and his few scruples. He has not found an honor worth fighting for and so lives a profligate life. The king admires his intelligence quite a bit and decides to make him Chancellor of England. Becket accepts the role and aids in both raising money for the French campaign and conquering Normandy with as little bloodshed as possible.

Part of raising money is collecting taxes from church properties. When the king consults the bishops, they refuse to pay based on exemptions from William the Conqueror. The king is adamant and Becket, seeing the power play between them, argues for the king. Becket and the king realize that the church is a significant power in England and could be a threat to royal authority. As they fight in France, word comes that the archbishop of Canterbury, the highest prelate in England, has died. The king sees his opportunity to control the church. He makes Becket the new archbishop. Becket is quite reluctant but obeys the king. After becoming archbishop, Becket discovers the honor that he has been lacking and defends the rights of the church against the king. Best friends become intense rivals.

The movie is a fascinating portrayal of the two characters, though clearly Peter O'Toole, who plays the king, delivers the more dynamic performance. Richard Burton plays Becket as a clever but reserved fellow. His transition from profligate playboy to stalwart defender of the church is believable, but his performance is a bit too austere and solemn. Some of the ceremonial scenes, like when Becket is ordained, take longer than modern audiences would be patient for. The production values are very high. The story is the best part. Overall the movie is a riveting watch.

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