There’s much to be said for a film that, however cheesily realized, sticks in memory for four decades. Peter Glenville’s historical drama about the parting of ways between King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) was released in 1964, just around the time I was boning up for high school exams on both the Jean Anouilh play on which it was based, and T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, another strong influence on the movie. The homoerotic subtext went right by me then, but it’s impossible to miss in this sharply restored new print, with the lovely irony of two of British cinema’s top roués playing against each other, one as the tempestuous Norman king who, on a whim, appointed his fellow party boy Archbishop of Canterbury, only to discover to their mutual astonishment that the iconoclastic Becket took his calling seriously. Almost bare of battle scenes, Becket is a tale of how one man’s religious crisis fanned the flames of conflict between the crown and the church, with a clutch of stalwart supporting performances from O’Toole’s wife, Sian Phillips, as Becket’s doomed mistress, to Donald Wolfit (he of the well-forested eyebrows) as Becket’s rival the Bishop of London, to John Gielgud as a wily King Louis VII of France. It’s also an improbable, titillating and oddly moving love story between two men with irreconcilably different temperaments. The king may be an overgrown schoolboy, but he loves and hates like a human being, not like a saint. Becket’s the saint if you need one, but the key insight is that he becomes a man of God because he has no idea how to love men or women. In other words, he has the soul of a fanatic — which makes Becket a highly contemporary work, I’d say. (Nuart)
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