Sunday, January 10, 2010

BECKET: Blu-Ray (Paramount 1964) MPI Entertainment

Nominated for 12 Oscars, director Peter Glenville's Becket (1964) is a classic struggle of wills that pits two of England's premier thespians - Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton - in a tumultuous saga of princely intrigue and papal deception. O'Toole is Henry II; the reigning, self destructive and mildly perverse monarch of the realm whose platonic 'love affair' with Sir Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) is brought to a tragic end after the latter is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Prior to this appointment the two men are the very best of friends, boozing and balling their way through a series of lower class wenches in the Saxon provinces. The king is both impatient and feckless. His demands take on the flavor of a petulant child. Hence, upon appointing Becket as his royal chancellor, the king's edicts take on more ballast, for Becket is both sound and wily in his reasoning.

This is particularly true when Becket offers guidance in Henry's dealings with the church, presided over by the elderly Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec (Felix Aylmer). Henry desperately requires tax monies from the church to oversee his conquering of lands seized by King Louis VII of France (Sir John Gielgud).
Brokering a peaceful acquisition of these lands, Becket is the more reserved of the two men - clearly relishing his close friendship with the king, yet always mildly goading him to acknowledge the differences between divine right and princely humility. However, Becket himself is not without flaws, chiefly in his inability to truly love anyone including the ever faithful Gwendolen (Sian Phillips).

Upon learning that Becket has inadvertently traded her to Henry for the love of a peasant girl that he, in fact, has no desire to procure for a romance, Gwendolen commits suicide aboard Henry's barge - thereupon driving the first wedge between these two men.

The second, and more lethal blow to their friendship derives from Becket's appointment as Archbishop. Quickly discovering that he cannot serve both church and state at once, Becket embraces his title as clergy, thereby incurring Henry's wrath. Exiled, Becket journeys first to France, then Rome for an audience with Pope Alexander III (Paolo Stoppa). But the Pope encourages him to return to England. Having secured his safe passage through Louis VIII, Becket returns to England as Archbishop, only to be murdered at the altar by a mindless following of knights loyal to Henry.

Superbly scripted by Edward Anhault, who is working from a celebrated stage hit written by Jean Anouilh, Becket is powerhouse entertainment. The one shortcoming frequently cited by critics about the film is that it tends to be heavy on dialogue and light on epic action. All to the better for this critic however, because the literal quality of the screenplay encourages both O'Toole and Burton to deliver quality, sustaining performances as only two gifted actors of their ilk can.

The machinations of their crumbling relationship is allowed its full flourish through brilliant exchanges in which the camera remains steadfast and fixed largely in two shot set ups to capture the dynamics of both performers, unlike today's heavy handed chopping up into sound bytes that make veritable mince meat of most actors' performances.

The nimbly invisible touch of long time producer Hal B. Wallis is indelibly imprinted on the sumptuousness of this film, It's resplendent and visually stylistic sets and costumes - recreate the regal decadence of England on a grand scale inside Shepperton Studios (produced for Paramount Pictures).

Running a lengthy 150 minutes without the benefit of an intermission, Becket remains superb high drama. Thought to have been lost in an epic fire, an original negative of Becket eventually resurfaced after 40 years in isolation, allowing for the first stunning DVD presentation and now this even more impressive Blu-Ray - both released through MPI Home Entertainment in conjunction with the Academy Film Archive.

The anamorphic transfer on the standard disc is quite immaculate. Where the Blu-Ray outperforms its predecessor is in color density and razor sharp fine details. Flesh tones still appear slightly more pinkish than natural, but Henry's blood red robes are less orange than on the standard disc. There remain minute examples of edge enhancement and some minor breathing of the image around the edges, but these are minor quibbling on an otherwise largely flawless visual presentation. The audio has been gloriously restored and is presented in a rather bombastic 5.1 Dolby Digital mix.

Extras on the Blu-Ray are a direct import from the standard disc with brief featurettes dedicated to the Anne V. Coates, film editor and composer Laurence Rosenthal - though ironically, not the film itself. There is also an articulate audio commentary by Peter O'Toole and two interviews done by the BBC with Richard Burton that are more interested in picking apart his personal life than analyzing his film and/or stage career. Bottom line: recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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