Absolution (1978 film)
|Directed by||Anthony Page|
|Produced by||Elliott Kastner|
|Written by||Anthony Shaffer|
|Music by||Stanley Myers|
|Edited by||John Victor-Smith|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
Absolution is a 1978 British thriller film directed by Anthony Page and written by playwright Anthony Shaffer. The film stars Richard Burton as a priest who teaches at a boys' school and finds one of his favourite students is playing a nasty practical joke on him. He sets out to investigate the prank and stumbles upon a dead body, leading to his life spiralling out of control.
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The film centres on Benjamin Stanfield and his unpopular, bespectacled friend, Arthur Dyson, who wears a leg brace; their form master, Father Goddard, and a travelling motorcyclist named Blakey. The opening scenes feature Connolly’s character, Blakey, arriving at the school on his motorbike. He asks Father Goddard (Burton) whether there are any odd jobs he can do but Goddard tells him that there are none available and that he should try in the town.
Later, Father Goddard is watching the handicapped boy, Arthur Dyson, rehearse in the school’s version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience. From his expression, it appears that he does not like the boy. Benjamin Stanfield, known as Benji to his friends, is later seen in Father Goddard’s room. He is looking somewhat embarrassed as the priest reads poetry and enthuses about youth and beauty. They are interrupted by Arthur and some other boys seeking permission to watch the World Cup on television. Goddard refuses and the boys, including Benji, head off to the dormitories.
The next morning in the dining room, Arthur and Benji are again with Father Goddard, who is apparently uninterested in Arthur’s attempts to engage him in conversation. Later in Latin class, Arthur questions Goddard about the book he is reading from, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but Goddard tells Arthur to translate the text, not discuss it. He gives Arthur detention and selects Benji to continue the translation while he looks on in admiration.
While the school production of Patience is taking place, Blakey, who has set up camp in the woods surrounding the school, breaks into the kitchens to steal food. His camp is discovered the following day by Benji and some other boys who are out on a cross country run. Dyson is not among the boys as presumably his leg brace prevents him taking part. There is a minor altercation between Blakey and one of the boys, Crawley, but after the others leave, Benji stays behind and strikes up a friendship with Blakey and his girlfriend, Louella.
The following day, Goddard is discussing the Catholic concept of confession with his class. He reveals that the priest cannot break the seal of confession, even if it includes a serious crime or murder.
Benji, who has befriended Blakey and his girlfriend, begins to spend less time with Dyson. He returns to the school late one night having spent the whole day with the couple, but disturbs Dyson, who is keen to know what Benji has been doing. Their conversation is overheard by Goddard, who reprimands Dyson for being out of bed but ignores Benji, who is pretending to be asleep. The priest feels Benji’s shoes, finding them to be wet and muddy.
The following day Father Goddard confronts Benji and makes him promise to stop seeing Blakey. Benji breaks this promise, however, and again visits the camp, where Blakey and Louella tease him about his relationship with the priest. They encourage Benji to make up stories about sexual acts between the three of them, which Benji later recounts to Father Goddard during confession. The priest again makes the boy promise not to see Blakey again. He says he has told the police about the traveller and hopes that will be an end to the matter.
The police have indeed been notified and turn up to destroy Blakey’s camp, kicking out his fire and searching through his possessions. They knock him about and tell him he has to move on. When Benji arrives later, Blakey is still upset and tells him to "Fuck off!" Benji picks up a rock, but what happens next is not revealed. Father Goddard catches Benji as he runs back to his dormitory and punishes the boy by making him scrub the floors, for which he is ridiculed by the other boys.
Later on, in confession, Benji tells Goddard that he accidentally killed Blakey and buried his body in the woods. Goddard tells the boy to wait in the chapel while he goes to the wood with a spade. Finding the site where the body is supposedly buried, he begins to dig and finds what at first he believes to be a head. When he exposes it further, it is revealed to be a pumpkin, at which point boys' laughter is heard. Realising he has been the victim of a practical joke, the priest furiously demands the boys show themselves, but they do not and Goddard storms back to the school. The watching boys tell Benji, who is among them, that he will be in trouble, but Benji replies that there is nothing Goddard can do because he was told in confession. After the others have left, Arthur Dyson appears and offers to take the blame but Benji, who is beginning to tire of him, pushes him to the ground and walks off. When Goddard finally catches up with Benji, the boy begins to cry, asking for forgiveness but as the priest leaves, Benji turns and smiles at the others who are looking on.
Benji finds Arthur and tells him he can take credit for the joke if he likes and later while the two boys are in the chapel, Arthur enters the confessional to tell Father Goddard that he was a willing accomplice. The priest tells him to pray for forgiveness and Dyson leaves. An unseen person then enters, but it is Benji’s voice that can be heard confessing that this time he really has murdered Blakey. The priest refuses to give absolution, fearing he may be the butt of another joke, but takes a spade to the woods anyway and after some digging, discovers Blakey’s dead body. He then returns to the chapel, where again he hears Benji’s voice in the confessional expressing a desire to kill again and that Dyson would be the next victim. Realising that he cannot tell anyone without breaking the seal of confession, the priest tries to keep an eye on Dyson and Stanfield. When he sees the boys heading for the woods, he becomes concerned for Arthur’s safety and sets off in pursuit but loses them both.
At the next lesson, Arthur is not at his desk. Father Goddard questions Benji, who admits that he and Arthur were together earlier but says that Arthur had become unwell and had returned to the school. In an attempt to find Dyson, Goddard activates the fire alarm, but the boy does not appear for the roll call. Goddard again questions Stanfield and alludes to his confession, but Benji denies the conversation ever took place. Later, in confession, Benji is heard apologising for denying the murder earlier, saying he wants to keep it to the confessional, and tells the priest where Dyson is buried. Father Goddard again sets off with his spade to the wood, where he finds what appears to be Arthur’s braced leg half exposed in the ground. He hears laughter and demands that the boy come out. When Benji appears, the priest strikes him in the face with a spade. The boy falls to the ground and the priest continues to attack him with the spade until he is dead. Goddard runs back to the chapel and prays for forgiveness, but is interrupted by Benji’s voice. The priest turns to discover Arthur Dyson, who tells him how he imitated Benji’s voice in the confessional and how it was he that killed Blakey and later attached a spare leg brace and moved the body to another site. Dyson tells the priest that he did it all out of revenge for Goddard’s cruelty. Goddard says he will take the blame for both the killings and asks Arthur’s forgiveness. Arthur refuses this, however, telling the priest he has the choice of confessing to the killings and going to gaol or committing suicide, a mortal sin. Father Goddard falls to his knees as Arthur, obviously very pleased with himself, walks off whistling.
- Richard Burton as Father Goddard
- Dominic Guard as Benjamin 'Benjie' Stanfield
- Dai Bradley as Arthur Dyson
- Billy Connolly as Blakey
- Andrew Keir as Headmaster
- Willoughby Gray as Brigadier Walsh
- Preston Lockwood as Father Hibbert
- James Ottaway as Father Matthews
- Brook Williams as Father Clarence
- Jon Plowman as Father Piers
- Robin Soans as Father Henryson
- Trevor Martin as Mr. Gladstone
- Sharon Duce as Louella
- Brian Glover as First Policeman
The screenplay was adapted by Anthony Shaffer from an unperformed stageplay he had written called Play With a Gypsy and was directed by Anthony Page. Christopher Lee was initially considered for the role of Father Goddard before it was given to Richard Burton. Shot on location at Ellesmere College, Shropshire and in Pinewood Studios, the film also stars Dai Bradley, Dominic Guard and the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, in his debut film role.
Absolution premiered in the UK in 1978 and went on general release in 1981, but for legal reasons was not released in the United States until 1988, four years after Burton’s death. The co-stars Sharon Duce, who played the girlfriend of Connolly’s character, and Dominic Guard later married.
Alternative ending and cut scenes
There was disagreement between Shaffer and Page as to how the film should end. Rather than reveal Dyson as the murderer, Shaffer wanted the film to retrospectively show the boy’s actions throughout, thus gradually leading the viewer to the terrifying conclusion.
A scene in which Arthur reveals his talent for voices by impersonating Father Goddard was cut from the film, as was a scene that reinforces Goddard’s apparent hatred of Dyson, in which the priest fast bowls cricket balls at the boy, who is barely able to defend himself. Some of the scenes between Stanfield and Blakey, which reveal more about the pair’s relationship, were also cut.
Reviews were mixed but largely positive. Paul Taylor of the Monthly Film Bulletin called Absolution "[a] dire slice of clever narrative trickery”. Leslie Halliwell noted that it was interesting and suspenseful but ultimately too complicated and The Guardian reviewer called it a "second rate murder mystery". Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide referred to the film as "[a] straightforward melodrama [that] loses credibility towards the end". All of them, however, lauded Burton’s performance. Dragan Antulov also praised the acting of his co-stars, Connolly, Guard and Bradley. He also found the film to be unexpected and believable and went on to say, "Absolution takes place in isolated yet realistic setting, and the real source of tension is within the characters. Shaffer never takes sides and until the very end audience is left to sympathise with different characters, never quite certain who among them is a good or bad. Because of that constant uncertainty, the atmosphere of the film is very dark and unusually bitter ending comes as something quite natural".