Friday, April 8, 2011

Becket

They don't make movies like this any more.  Sure, with the Oscar success of The King's Speech, some might argue that the period piece drama is as strong as ever, but that film was more of an oddity than anything else.  No, I don't think any major film company would develop a movie set in the late 1100s that has no epic sword fights or battles; instead, this is a battle of wills and asks the question of where loyalty to God supersedes loyalty to man, about as intellectual of a film subject as you can get without ending up with a space baby.
"Go ahead, try to explain me."
Becket is the moderately true story (more on that later) of Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) and his relationship with King Henry II of England (Peter O'Toole).  The film takes place about a century after William the Conqueror and the Normans invaded England, dominating the native Saxons.  Henry, obviously, is a descendant of William, and he treats the Saxons as worthless peasants.  When he encounters them, he likes to refer to adults as "it" instead of "he/she."  Henry's right hand man is Thomas, who aids his highness with his eating (food fights), drinking (until far beyond drunk) and wenching (which is an excellent term that should be brought back for modern usage).  Thomas is a Saxon, but he is a refined man; he has divorced himself from petty emotions and honor, instead doing whatever practical things he can do to enjoy the finer things in life as long as he is able.  This makes him a bit of a traitor to the peasant class, but Becket doesn't care.  To reward his bestest buddy, Henry appoints him as his official counselor; this makes the supposedly worthless Saxon a powerful political figure, and it is quickly seen just how clever he is.  That cleverness pays off in unexpected ways for Becket.  Henry has been trying to pay for a war against France for a while now, but his efforts to gather money to pay his Swiss mercenaries  --- why develop an English army when the Swiss already have their knives ready? --- have failed; specifically, Henry has been trying to tax the land and holdings of the Church of England, but the stodgy old Archbishop doesn't want that to happen.  Shocking, I know.  When the Archbishop dies, Henry has the brilliant idea to put his wenching buddy in the driver's seat for the church.  However, Becket unexpectedly takes his role as Archbishop seriously, and stands firm against his king on that and other, more serious, issues.  Who will win, church or state?  Well, if you know your history, that shouldn't be a huge surprise.
Apparently, King Henry II laughed like a corpse.  And stop undressing me with your eyes, Becket!

What might be a surprise, though, is the historical accuracy of this story.  To be fair, this is simply the film adaptation of the play Becket or the Honour of God, so several inaccuracies come from the source text.  Still, there are some things that stick out like sore thumbs.  For starters, Becket wasn't a Saxon, so there was never that class division that this film places so much importance on.  The playwright actually knew that, but learned about it after the play was finished, and decided to leave it in for dramatic purposes.  I love intentional disinformation.  Another small detail that you might notice missing from this film is the French language.  As in, only a French prostitute seems to speak French, while everyone else speaks English with a British accent; that's especially funny when you consider that the Normans were from France, were Francophiles, and spoke French most of the time in court.  As for the French king in this movie...I don't exactly know why he isn't speaking French at all, even with his own advisers.  None of that really bothers me, despite being somewhat familiar with English history, but it struck me as very odd; why have some presumably French-speaking characters that have trouble with English, but not others?

The acting in this film is good, but it also has one of the shortcomings that prestigious older movies sometimes have --- overacting.  I like Richard Burton as an actor, but this role plays to some of his hammier tendencies; I would have liked to see a little more of Becket as the King's enabler, because the serious Becket is (although appropriately dramatic) kind of a drag to listen to.  Despite the movie's title, this film really belongs to Peter O'Toole.  Fresh off of Lawrence of Arabia (a role he took instead of playing King Henry in the original stage production of Becket), this is O'Toole in his prime.  Sure, his King Henry II is occasionally effeminate (find an O'Toole performance that isn't, I dare you), but that softness vanishes whenever he gets acerbic.  The most enjoyable moments of the film feature O'Toole verbally assaulting the royal family and, despite himself, admiring his frienemy, Becket.  The most powerful (and pivotal) scene in the movie is just O'Toole ranting and shouting about Becket.  For a movie called Becket, it is less about the character and more about his effect on King Henry II.  I was hoping to enjoy Burton and O'Toole on screen together, but those scenes typically played either to their weaknesses or were necessarily underacted.  And, let's be honest...these two actors are of the British old school; their performances are very much of the thee-aturr, often ignoring subtlety in their quest to broadly emote.  Fellas, relax...the camera can zoom in and the microphones can catch whispered lines; use your inside voices.  Yes, they are both very talented, but much of this film feels over-dramatized. 

The supporting cast does a decent enough job, but their parts are fairly minuscule.  John Gielgud was amusing as the French king with a British accent.  Paolo Stoppa was less convincing as Pope Alexander III, but he and his cardinals were pretty funny with their Mario-esque Italian acc-a-cents.  Pamela Brown doesn't get a chance to do much acting as Henry's wife, but she does a good job reacting to Henry's significantly awesome and degrading remarks about their sex life.

Peter Glenville does not have many film credits to his name, but the director was prolific on Broadway.  In fact, he directed Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn in the original theatrical run of Becket.  With his big screen version, he does a lot of things right.  The movie looks great, the cinematography is good, the sets and costumes are impressively authentic, and the supporting cast performs admirably.  I can't say that I'm surprised that Glenville, a theater director, worked with actors that performed as if they were on stage and had to be seen and heard from the back of the upper balcony.  As it stands, he directed two very talented actors into overacting.

For the most part, I enjoyed Becket.  Sure, the acting was occasionally over the top, but there are several moments --- mostly provided by O'Toole --- that are well worth the price of admission.  Unfortunately, the film shows its age in more ways than just the theatrical acting style.  The score grated on my nerves; I don't need the music to tell me when it's time to be happy, I'll take my cues from the smiling actors, thank you.  You might notice a few occasions where the sound isn't quite right, too.  For instance, I don't think a tent in France should echo like a sound stage.  Aside from that, only the subject matter feels anachronistic.  I'm not saying that religious films can't be made today, but when they are, they are typically syrupy.  This is a film that takes the concept of God and turns it into an issue of individual honor, and takes a conflict between two powerful men and transforms it into a story of political maneuvering.  In its way, Becket is a very clever story, but it is one without a modern analogue, for better or worse.

Becket enjoyed immense critical acclaim when it was first released --- twelve Oscar nominations --- but has faded somewhat over time.  Is it because we care more about historical accuracy in our movies, now that we watch them to learn history?  I don't think that's it.  Perhaps the subject matter --- a man putting his life on the line for God and honor --- doesn't hit as close to home nowadays?  That's not right, either.  I think that the combination of a talky script, overacted performances, an inappropriate score, and a subject matter that Americans don't care much about (12th century British politics) have all added up to make this a well-made, but ultimately not timeless film.

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