Absolution might not be Burton at his best but everything which makes him legendary is up on screen.
Richard Burton had legendary appetites for alcohol, financial excess and a more than passing admiration for Elizabeth Taylor who he married twice. Blessed with a commanding presence, richly sonorous register and classic film star features, his career was unpredictable. An extremely private person with a very public persona, he did a combination of mainstream Hollywood epics and pay cheque war time espionage flicks, some with his intermittent wife of numerous years, others with future legends in the making like Clint Eastwood.
In the latter part of his career Burton’s star diminished even if his reputation and talent kept him employed. Absolution – released in 1978 – saw him cast as Father Goddard, a Latin tutor at a rural Catholic school. Featuring Billy Connolly in one of his first screen roles, Burton carries the film with ease. Written by Anthony Shaffer, who also penned The Wicker Man, Sleuth and Death on the Nile, it’s a strangely muted affair with an overpowering soundtrack.
Burton remains magnetic throughout even though his role is sparse while the supporting cast of younger actors hold their own against him. Dominic Guard, not long off Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock plays Stanfield as conniving but calculated, a student who is perpetually in Goddard’s favour. Other performances of note include Dia Bradley as Dyson who was best known for his title role in Kes. Meanwhile direction from Anthony Page is serviceable even if the premise is commonplace.
Production design which was split between location work and Pinewood gives everything a gothic air, whilst the escalating thriller elements verge on Hammer Horror. Burton had done The Exorcist II previously and throwbacks to that abysmal enterprise pepper his performance here. Goddard is insular, cantankerous and brooding yet imbued with paranoia, guilt and religious doubt. His theatre background, passion for language and public reputation might have preceded him, but director Anthony Page states that Burton brought all his gifts to bear and remained a consummate professional throughout.
Absolution might not be Burton at his best but everything which makes him legendary is up on screen. Studious, tempestuous and in command of a restrained masculinity, the force of Burton’s star power is barely contained. With seemingly little effort he achieved and maintained an iconic status projecting a presence few have ever matched.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Anthony Page
Written by: Anthony Shaffer
Starring: Richard Burton, Dominic Guard, Dai Bradley, Billy Connolly
Released: 1978 / Genre: Thriller
Country: UK / IMDB
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Absolution is out now on Blu-ray.