ABSOLUTION

 

 

 

DEADLY SECRETS
BOYHOOD INNOCENCE
BURNING TRUTHS

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ONE MAN
TWO BOYS
ONE DEADLY GAME

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THOU SHALT NOT KILL...

 

 

 

In 1970, Shaffer spoke to the press about a new stage project he was negotiating with producers about having it staged. This play, a psycholigical thriller set in a boys Catholic school, was called Play With A Gypsy and it was hoped that it would be played in the West End before going on to New York. This production never came about (see Play With A Gypsy in the Other Works section of this site) and so Shaffer adapted his script for the screen. Christopher Lee had read the screenplay for what was now known as Absolution and was very interested in playing the part of Father Goddard. The film idea was stalled and wouldn't get the go-ahead for another eight years. Christopher Lee however, did get to play the role of Lord Summerisle in Shaffer's film The Wicker Man a few years later - a role specially written for him.

In 1978, Absolution was produced by Elliott Kastner and Danny O' Donovan under the name Bulldog Productions, a company based at Pinewood Studios, London. It was in fact Richard Burton himself who brought the script to Kastner's attention after waiting years to play the part of Father Goddard. In fact, he mentioned in his diaries in July 1971 that he was hoping to film in September that year. Kastner agreed to raise the money despite the fact the major studios showed no interest in backing the project. Burton, in turn, agreed to work for only a small fraction of his usual salary. Kastner had produced more than fifty motion pictures, four of them starring Burton - Where Eagles Dare, Villain, Equus (the film version of Peter Shaffer's play) and The Medusa Touch. Film and television director Anthony Page was brought in to direct.

 

The principle cast was made up of Richard Burton, Dominic Guard, Dai Bradley, Billy Connolly, Andrew Keir and Willoughby Gray. Dominic Guard had previously appeared in various parts in film and television, most notably The Go-Between and Picnic At Hanging Rock. Dai Bradley (now known as David Bradley) shot to fame in the late 1960's with his part of Billy Casper in the Ken Loach film Kes. Billy Connolly was at that time making his name touring the comedy and folk circuits and Absolution was his film debut. Other familiar faces include Hilary Mason from Don't Look Now, Brian Glover, the memorable character actor who had also appeared with Dai Bradley in Kes and Robert Addie, who became better known as Sir Guy of Gisburne in the 1980's TV series Robin Hood.

 

 

 

By March 1978 the production arrangements had been made and, with the casting set, the next task was to find a suitable location for the school scenes. The interiors were to be shot in Pinewood, but exterior shots of the school needed a real setting. The chosen school was Ellesmere College in Shropshire located near the picturesque village of Ellesmere.

Production notes dated Sunday 16th April 1978 give detailed accounts of the movement orders for the cast and crew, together with the various pubs and hotels where they were to be based during the filming at Ellesmere College. This list also includes arrangements for equipment movements from Pinewood Studios to the location.

Richard Burton had already filmed some of the scenes at Pinewood before the unit was transferred to Ellesmere. Kenneth Williams, comedian and Carry On... star notes in his diaries that he spoke to Richard Burton on 3rd May at Pinewood Studios and Burton told him about his new film!

Driving around the locations in Ellesmere with the film crew, director Anthony Page spoke about the importance of finding the right setting to fit with the studio shots: "I'm trying to find the exact places for filming Blakey's approach to the school. The locations are very important. It's a question of getting the exact balance between gothic feeling of the school and the surrounding countryside."

He continued: "I'm delighted with the quality that John Coquillon (director of photography) is bringing to the picture. I have never worked with him before, but his low-keyed effects on the screen are absolutely right for our story." Pleased with the school's feel and setting, Page comments: "You can see Richard Burton in these landscapes, can't you? He's marvellous in the part of Goddard. He has that huge, outsize quality, rather like Russian actors. There's nothing too small or mean about Richard's acting. At the moment he is just getting into the part because he has only been filming for a week. So far we haven't done any of his really big scenes. A lot of corridor walking except that yesterday we started filming some of the bits after the first murder and the effect on the screen is extraordinary. Also Goddard has a sadistic streak, which Richard is bringing out in the character with such subtly. He has that marvellous dry, cutting edge which he used so brilliantly in Virginia Woolf."

Burton also brought a number of personal touches to the film – poetry for instance. He virtually improvised the scene in which he reads a poem The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo by Gerald Manly Hopkins, a poet he admired. Also, the final scene was shot in just one day, a task which Anthony Page marvels at.

 

 

Many of the local boys who attended the school, were also brought in as extras for the shoot and were entertained by Billy Connolly in his famed banana boots telling stories and jokes!

In his biography "Billy" his time on Absolution is recalled: "When they were filming the forest scene, Billy had to lie perfectly still wearing 'dead' make-up, half covered with leaves. Richard approached the body, to play the emotional moments of discovery, leant over the body and his face was a moving depiction of horror.

However, Billy couldn't keep a straight face for his close-up because Richard Burton had burst into song at the top of his voice "I belong to Glasgow!"

The filming at Ellesmere and Pinewood lasted some five weeks and by the end of June 1978 all work was complete.

“The part of Father Goddard was without any doubt one of Burton’s favourite roles. While filming, he was on the mark, bursting with energy and truly inspired.” said Kastner. ”All of this contributed to making the project one of the happiest experiences in my career as a producer.”

Anthony Page also had the same feelings about Burton's performance: "“No actor could have been more professional than Burton was on Absolution. He was ready to apply all his incredible energy to the picture. Before a scene Burton wanted to have exact direction, as to specific moves, attitudes and the like. Then when the camera was rolling, he came on like a highly-charged animal, ready to take on the world."

David Bradley recalls "Absolution is something I enjoyed doing with Richard Burton and Billy Connolly. That was great fun."

Shaffer had reservations about how the finished film would be, due to an idea he happened upon during filming. He wanted to change the twist in the tale ending so, instead of Dyson being revealed as the murderer at the end, we see his actions earlier in the film therefore taking us on a journey of terror as we watch what he's doing to Father Goddard. Shaffer suggested this change but Anthony Page refused, despite there being time in which to do it. Shaffer was also unhappy to hear that Page also had someone re-writing the script behind his back.

The script contains some noticeable changes and additions as well as scenes which did not make the final cut. Some examples of this include a minor additional scene where one boy is trying to read a letter written in Spanish sent to another boy. This is part of the scene where Arthur Dyson does his "Dyson, I said not now and I mean not now" Father Goddard impression (which isn't in the script!) There is also another scene where Father Goddard and the pupils are talking at breakfast about the food being stolen the night before. The scenes with Benji and Blakey are all slightly different too - several of them longer which give more of an insight into their friendship. Another scene is of the boys in the dormitory telling Benji to stop seeing Blakey as it will lead to trouble. This scene takes place just before Benji is in Father Goddard's room and promises never to see the man again.

One of the most interesting scenes which doesn't make the film (but is in Shaffer's novel) is set around the cricket pitch on which Father Goddard humiliates Arthur:

ARTHUR
Sir?

GODDARD
Yes, Dyson, what is it?

ARTHUR
D'you think it's possible to be a Communist and a good Catholic at the same time?

GODDARD
(irritably)
Certainly not.

ARTHUR
Sorry, sir. It's just that -

GODDARD
(quiet)
Dyson, please. I feel like swinging my bowling arm a bit.
Fancy playing a shot or two?

ARTHUR
Me, Sir?

GODDARD
Yes, you, sir.
(drags ARTHUR to his feet)
Come on, it'll do you the world of good.

GODDARD leads ARTHUR to the wicket.

GODDARD
(to LEWIS)
Dyson wants to borrow your bat for a moment.
(smiling to LEWIS)
Don't bother about pads, I'll bowl underarm.

GODDARD marches back to the crease while LEWIS shows ARTHUR how to hold the bat. GODDARD takes the ball from an obviously disapproving CAWLEY. O'DOWD, BLACK and one or two others stop to watch. With each ball, more and more spectators gather to watch: as at a public execution, the primary expression is one of silent awe. One or two crasser souls are amused: one or two finer souls disgusted. GODDARD remains affable throughout - but of course, insensitive to the devastating cruelty of the situation.

GODDARD bowls the first ball.
ARTHUR misses.

GODDARD
Good. But keep your eye on the ball next time.

LEWIS throws the ball back to him.
GODDARD bowls again, a bit wide.
ARTHUR swings his bat, misses and falls over.

GODDARD
(to LEWIS)
Pick him up.
(LEWIS frowns)
Pick him up.

LEWIS does so.
GODDARD lifts his eyes - "Can I have the ball back?"
LEWIS frowns again, hesitates, throws the ball back.
GODDARD bowls again, underarm, but actually quite fast.
The ball clangs against ARTHUR's brace.

BLACK
(shouts)
Brace before wicket!

Some boys laugh. Most remain silent.
ARTHUR rubs his ankle.
GODDARD catches the ball from LEWIS, throws it in turn to CAWLEY.

GODDARD
Carry on.

He walks away.

 

 

Absolution was premiered in the UK in December 1978 but wasn't released until 1981. It was also re-titled Murder By Confession for television. It wasn't released in the US until July 1988, four years after Burton's death. Speaking to the press at that time, Kastner explains the delay for the release in the US: "Legal problems. Money was owed. A bank foreclosed against the film. Litigation followed, and it took until last year to pay off the debt." He added about its new release: "I'm hopeful that America in particular will find this a lost treasure and support it."

 

Reviews were a mixed bag but most were complimentary and noted Burton's performance as a lost gem: "A dire slice of clever-clever narrative trickery." said Paul Taylor of MFB. "Interesting and suspenseful, though finally too complicated compromise between a thriller of the Sleuth type and a downbeat character study." wrote Leslie Halliwell. "Burton gives a commanding performance. . . . Straightforward melodrama loses credibility toward the end." Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. "You can't make real bricks from this kind of straw, since a potentially interesting study of character and environment is gradually weakened by the constraints of a second-rate murder mystery." Guardian.

 

Dragan Antulov wrote more favourably: "Anthony Shaffer's script is based on stage play, but this is more of an asset than liability for this particular thriller. Unlike modern-day thrillers that usually rely on exotic set-ups, 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. The ending of Absolution also represents something which is quite rare in modern Hollywood thrillers - it is both unexpected, yet very believable and fits within the context of the story. The acting in this film is superb, with Richard Burton allowing audience both to despise and sympathise with his rigid character. Billy Connolly is also very impressive as his carefree and often larger- than-life opposite. Their younger colleagues Dominic Guard and David Bradley are also very good in their roles."

 

 

CAST

Father Goddard.................Richard Burton
Benjamin Stanfield............Dominic Guard
Arthur Dyson......................Dai Bradley
Blakey.................................Billy Connolly
Headmaster.......................Andrew Keir
Brigadier Walsh.................Willoughby Gray
Father Hibbert....................Preston Lockwood
Father Matthews.................James Ottaway
Father Clarence.................Brook Williams
Father Piers.......................Jon Plowman
Father Henryson................Robin Soans
Mr Gladstone......................Trevor Martin
Louella.................................Sharon Duce
First Policeman..................Brian Glover
Second Policeman............ Dan Meaden
Miss Froggatt......................Hilary Mason
Mrs Hoskins.........................Hilda Fenemore
Crawley................................Robert Addie
Peterson..............................Kevin Hart
Gregory................................Philip Leake
O'Dowd................................Michael Crompton

Produced By: Elliott Kastner & Danny O'Donovan

Directed By: Anthony Page

Production Company: Bulldog Productions

 

 

SYNOPSIS

The film opens with travelling biker Blakey arriving at St Anthony's school. He calls to Father Goddard and asks if there's any work or odd jobs he can do. Father Goddard, obviously not wanting him there, tells him there isn't and directs him away to the town. Father Goddard watches a rehearsal of the opera Patience by Gilbert & Sullivan and looks on with distaste at the crippled boy, Arthur Dyson, dressed as Lady Jane singing 'Sad Is That Woman's Lot.'

Benji is in Father Goddard's room looking uncomfortable as Father Goddard reads to him 'The Leaden Echo And The Golden Echo' by Gerard Manly Hopkins and discussing youth and beauty. Arthur and some of the other boys interrupt:

BOY: "Father, can we watch the World Cup on TV?"

FATHER GODDARD: "No, not now"

DYSON: "But it's the semi-finals tonight Father. Rivolino's playing and he's a very good Catholic."

FATHER GODDARD: "Dyson, I said not now and I mean not now."

Benji returns to his dorm, ignoring the teasing from the other boys. Arthur goes to him.

DYSON: "What was he going on about tonight, Benji?"

STANFIELD: "Oh, the usual exhilarating stuff - puss and bones. It was very pleasant."

We see Blakey has found a quiet spot in the nearby woods and is singing cheerfully to himself as he sets up camp there.

The next morning we see Father Goddard in the dining room with Arthur and Benji at his side. Arthur is jabbering away to Father Goddard who is taking no notice and remains distant. At a lesson that morning, Arthur is reading to the class from 'Caeser’s Gallic Wars' and questions the text, ignoring Father Goddard's instructions to translate and not discuss. Arthur continues to push for a discussion which infuriates Father Goddard, who then humiliates him in front of the class, and puts him on detention. He asks Benji to translate the text and looks with interest as he does so. The humiliated Arthur glares at Father Goddard.

While the performance of Patience takes place in front of the school, we see Blakey breaking into the school and stealing food from the kitchen.

On a cross country run the next day, Benji and a few others see Blakey and stop to speak to him. Cawley calls out to him:

CRAWLEY: "Hey you, do you realise this is private property?"

BLAKEY: "What are you doing here then?"

CRAWLEY: "The school has a special arrangement with the owners."

BLAKEY: "All property is theft. I bet those black buzzards up there didn't tell you that."

The others continue with their run while Benji stays a while longer to talk.

Father Goddard is discussing the subject of the confession with his class. He tells them that the confession from the penitent to the priest is bound by secrecy, even if this includes a serious crime or murder. Arthur questions this by asking if a priest taking the confession can tell another priest who may go to the police, but Father Goddard sets him straight that under no circumstances whatsoever may a priest break the seal of the confession.

We see Benji with Blakey, catching trout by hand at the river and later drinking from a bottle around the campfire. He returns to the dorm much later while the other boys sleep. Arthur is awake and asks Benji about where he's been but his chatter disturbs the others and Father Goddard catches Arthur out of his bed. He tells him to get back to bed and then checks in on Benji who is pretending to be sleeping. Father Goddard picks up his shoe and feels the mud is wet on it. He says nothing.

The next morning Arthur is asking Benji about his activities the night before, thinking it's a girl he's been seeing.

DYSON: "I bet she's in love with you. Is she?"

STANFIELD: "Yes, we're getting married tonight in the woods actually. We're going to have a gypsy wedding."

DYSON: "What's one of those?"

STANFIELD: "Bride and bride groom piss in a bucket."

DYSON: "You'd better not let Goddard catch you!"

STANFIELD: "He's the best man."

While Father Goddard and the headmaster watch a drama lesson attended by Arthur, Benji and the other boys, we learn that Father Goddard has a dislike for Arthur and has high hopes of Benji becoming a priest. The headmaster tells him that Arthur admires him and this is what he should build on. Later, Arthur is lurking around Benji persistently asking him questions about where he's going, etc. Benji is becoming tired of this and treats him coldly. He runs off into the woods, leaving Arthur alone. Benji has gone to see Blakey again.

Later, Father Goddard is in his room talking to Benji about his new friend Blakey.

FATHER GODDARD: "You have a new friend I hear. Do you want to tell me about him?"

STANFIELD: "There's not much to tell, Father. It's just somebody who's been camping in the woods. His name's Blakey."

FATHER GODDARD: "Is that the chap with the beard and the motorbike? What's his special attraction to you,
apart from being a thief? It was he who broke into the school wasn't it?"

STANFIELD: "No. He's interesting and he's done a lot of things I'd like to do, and he's...he's free."

FATHER GODDARD: "Freedom's a banner the unscrupulous frequently march under."

Father Goddard asks Benji to promise never see Blakey again. He tells him he has friends at the school and also has high hopes for him. Benji is unhappy about having to promise not to see Blakey again, but promises not to anyway.

The next day we see Benji with Blakey and his friend Louella. They are making fun of Father Goddard and Louella tells Benji to go back and tell him that he's been frolicking with Blakey and Louella in the woods. Blakey tells him to say it in confession.

BLAKEY: "Tell him in confession"

STANFIELD: "In confession?"

BLAKEY: "Yes, really lay it on, make the bastard suffer. What's wrong with that?
I mean, if he breaths so much as a word he'll go straight to hell!"

 

Benji asks Father Goddard to hear a confession from him. Father Goddard is reluctant at first as he is Benji's form master so advises him to speak to one of the other priests. Benji begs him to hear him saying he can only confess what he has to say to him. Father Goddard answers the boys pleas and takes the confession there and then in his room. Benji confesses to Father Goddard that he has broken his promise not to see Blakey and then committed a sexual sin with Blakey and then with Blakey's girlfriend while Blakey watched. He tells the priest that Blakey says we must experience everything and then judge it for ourselves. Father Goddard is horrified at what he is hearing and tells the boy he should be ashamed and disgusted at what he's done and promise not to see Blakey again. He tells Benji he's already informed the police about Blakey and hopefully will be away by now.

We see the police arrive at Blakey's camp and tell him to get dressed and move on. They kick out his fire, scatter his belongings and beat him up. Later, Benji goes to see him and tells Blakey that he told Father Goddard about the story in confession. Blakey, bruised and defeated, tells Benji he doesn't care and calls him a weak, spoilt brat. He pushes Benji away and, as he turns his back, Benji picks up a large stone and makes for Blakey. We see Benji running through the woods back to the school and is caught by Father Goddard as he makes back to the dorm.

FATHER GODDARD: "You're a disgrace to the school and an insult to my teaching."

STANFIELD: "I'm sorry Father."

FATHER GODDARD: "No you're not. Your simply sorry that you've been found out. "

Father Goddard punishes him by banning him from playing sports for the rest of the term and tells him to get down on his hands and knees and scrub the floor of the corridor and the stairs. The other boys make fun of Benji as they see him scrubbing the stairway.

Later, Benji approaches Father Goddard and tells him he needs to make a confession. Father Goddard listens to the confession in the chapel. Benji tells him how he had felt rejected by the priest and when he knew Blakey didn't want to know him anymore, picked up the stone and hit him on the head with it. Crying, he tells Father Goddard he didn't mean to do it and would do anything to have Blakey alive again. He tells him where he's buried the body and Father Goddard tells him he will go there while Benji should stay in the church and make his sorrow known to God.

Father Goddard takes a spade and trudges through the woods to where Blakey's body is buried. He finds the plot and slowly digs. He finds something and starts to dig into the soil with his hands. He finds something like a head and when he pulls it out sees that it's actually a pumpkin. Benji and a few other boys are hiding close by and chuckle as Father Goddard falls for the trick. Father Goddard calls for Benji to come out but goes back to the school in rage. The other boys tell Benji he will be in trouble now but Benji laughs it off as there is nothing the priest can do because he told him in confession. The others don't want to be part of it and go back to the school. Arthur appears and tells him it was a good trick and he wouldn't mind taking the blame for it. Benji pushes him to the ground and goes off.

Back at the school a furious Father Goddard confronts Benji.

FATHER GODDARD: "It's Blasphemy on a scale I haven't encountered in thirty years as a teacher and a priest.
You've made a mockery on the rites of the Church, abused the Sacrament and ended up by playing a
filthy practical joke on God!"

Benji breaks down and tells Father Goddard that he sees him as a father figure and is sorry for what he has done. Father Goddard tells him to go and make peace with God. Benji leaves Father Goddard's room showing the other boys a smile and being pleased with the performance they've just heard. He goes to Arthur and tells him he could take the credit for the joke he played on Father Goddard and tell their form master in confession. Benji tells him he's got away with it and Arthur could too. Arthur agrees to it.

Benji and Arthur are at the Chapel and Arthur goes in to the confessional to be heard by Father Goddard. He tells the priest that he has been siding with Benji against him. Father Goddard tells him to pray in the Church for forgiveness. Benji then goes into the confessional and tells Father Goddard that he has now killed Blakey for real and has buried him in the woods. He begs for Absolution. Father Goddard refuses to do this for what might be another practical joke and tells him to return later.

Father Goddard goes to the site of where Blakey is supposed to be buried and digs through the dirt. He finds Blakey, cold and still in the ground and prays for him.

Father Goddard goes back to the Chapel and hears Benji again in the confessional. Benji tells him now he's killed once he wants to kill again. He tells the priest that he will kill Arthur next and there's nothing he can do about it.

Father Goddard becomes concerned about Arthur's safety and sees him walking with Benji towards the woods. He tears through the school and tries to catch up with them but they disappear. At his next lesson Father Goddard notices Arthur isn't at his desk. He asks the boys who haven't seen him and turns to Benji, telling him he saw him go off with him earlier that day. Benji said they went to the boating shed but Arthur felt unwell so left. Father Goddard goes about the school looking for Arthur and resorts to breaking the fire alarm in order to empty the school. Arthur doesn't show at the meeting point. Finding its a false alarm, the teachers and pupils go back in to the school.

Father Goddard speaks to Benji about his confession and asks what he's done with Arthur. Benji looks at him blankly and denies knowing what he's talking about.

FATHER GODDARD: "You are a self confessed murderer"

STANFIELD: "You must be having hallucinations, Father. I sent you to find a scarecrow.
Why don't you go and see a psychiatrist? They understand all about the problems of celibate priests."

FATHER GODDARD: "Your tricks and insolence won't send me mad if that's what you're after.
The devil is in you but he won't...won't bring me down. I'm a match for the devil.
Satan appears in many disguises to destroy but he won't destroy me, I'll be constant."

Father Goddard has reported to the headmaster that he expected Arthur to be missing from the fire alarm incident but is tortured by the fact he can't give the details.

At the next confession, Benji apologises about denying the murder earlier, but wants to keep it all to the confessional. He then tells Father Goddard that he has killed Arthur and buried him out in the woods. Father Goddard gets a spade from the shed and makes for the woods. He looks down at the ground and finds Arthur's braced leg sticking partly out the soil. He hears Benji laughing and calls for him to come out. Benji appears from behind the trees and Father Goddard hits him in the face with the spade, knocking him to the ground and hitting him repeatedly with the spade.

Father Goddard runs back to the school in despair and prays for forgiveness in the Chapel. He hears Benji's voice talking to him and is alarmed to find that it is in fact Arthur. The boy tells him how he had set it all up. He killed Blakey and put a spare leg brace on him and moved the body to a new grave. He imitated Benji's voice in the confessional - an easy trick to play when you talk in whispers and don't see faces. Father Goddard is horrified to learn that he has fallen for all this. Arthur tells him he did it because he needed the priests love but all he ever did in return was be cruel to him. Father Goddard tells him he will take the blame for the killings and hopes Arthur can forgive him and find his way with God.

Arthur tells him he will not give him the comfort of martyrdom and he has two choices: to go to the police and admit to the killings which will put him away for life, or in an asylum as he will not be able to tell them why. The other is to commit suicide, but this will put him in hell for all eternity.

DYSON: "If it was up to me, believing what you believe, I think I'd chose detention than preference to Hell.
It will probably be more comfortable and the sentence shorter."

Father Goddard falls at the altar in despair. Arthur walks away, whistling cheerfully.

 

 

 

 

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