Movie review: 'Becket' offers theatrical royalty in King Henry's court

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2007 - 2:59 PM

How could you hope for better casting than Peter O'Toole and his acting rival/drinking buddy Richard Burton playing opposite each other as England's spoiled, willful King Henry II and his friend and eventual nemesis, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury?

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Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton

How could you hope for better casting than Peter O'Toole and his acting rival/drinking buddy Richard Burton playing opposite each other as England's spoiled, willful King Henry II and his friend and eventual nemesis, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury?

The duo give electrifying life to "Becket," a tale of political and literal back-stabbing that plays like a high-toned mobster movie. Henry, a Norman ruler aiming to increase his control over the restless Saxon masses, appoints his native-born friend Becket as archbishop, expecting him to bring the troublesome church hierarchy under the king's command.

When Becket begins paying closer heed to divine authority than to his earthly monarch, Henry bawls, "Becket is the only intelligent man in my kingdom, and he's against me!" The rift spurs a power struggle that climaxes with Becket's martyrdom.

The film earned both O'Toole and Burton best actor Oscar nominations when it was released in 1964, and John Gielgud got a best supporting actor nod as sly King Louis VII of France. Despite director Peter Glenville's rather static staging, their performances still crackle.

Burton has the more subdued, internal part, calculating just how far he can go opposing his old friend before provoking Henry's wrath once too often. O'Toole, arrogance incarnate, projects to the rafters, shouting his lines so forcefully in one horseback scene that the startled animals flinch. It's a terrific performing duel, and the film implies that Henry's fury is half political outrage and half something like a betrayed lover's pique, a rather audacious subtext for a film of its time.

  • BECKET

    3 out of 4 stars

    Where: Lagoon.

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