Having portrayed a man of the cloth in films like The Night of the Iguana and The Exorcist II, Richard Burton finds himself right at home as another tortured figure at odds with his faith in this Anthony Shaffer written thriller. Shaffer had previously delved into religious themes with the cult favorite The Wickerman in 1973.
In this outing coming just one year after wearing the collar in the devastating Exorcist sequel, Burton plays a Priest/teacher at an all boys school in the English countryside. He’s a stern task master and the plot will have two students taking center stage. Dominic Guard as Benji, the prized pupil that Burton and his higher up, Andrew Keir hope to direct towards priesthood and David Bradly as Dyson. Bradley is portraying a partially crippled student who grates on the nerves of both Burton and many of his fellow classmates always wanting to be one of the gang and forever asking questions.
Into the story comes Billy Connolly in his film debut as a shaggy haired vagabond living by his wits and camping on the outskirts of the school property in the nearby woods. Burton shuns him when he asks for a job and when the boys engage in physical fitness, they will run pass his makeshift campground where he entertains himself singing folksongs and playing his banjo. I even caught Billy singing a few bars of Shady Grove, a song I associate with bluegrass music here in North America. When Dominic befriends Billy, he sees a life of freedom that Burton and the strict religious establishment won’t allow. When Billy suggests a cruel joke to be played on Burton, the plot is going to spiral into a horror themed mystery.
Dominic’s cruelty comes forth in the confessional when he tells Burton of a sexual tryst between Billy, himself and a young woman. He begs forgiveness and Burton is aghast at his prized pupil having him agree to never seeing the vagabond again. Connelly is subsequently beaten by local police and told to get on his way. Ignoring his promise, Dominic goes to see Billy once again only to be rejected. He reaches for a rock and………….
In his next confessional he tells Burton he has murdered the travelling minstrel and buried him in the woods. Burton can’t believe what he’s hearing and heads to the woods to discover a fake grave. A joke in poor taste has been played on him. This time. Dominic is taking pleasure in his lies. Burton is bound to the rules put forth by the church and cannot divulge the confessions to Keir or the police. Things are going to go over the edge of childish pranks when again Dominic confesses to killing Billy and this time Burton finds the corpse in a second grave. The taunting continues when Dominic playfully hints at Burton in class over the bindings of the confessional and in his next confession, he admits to wanting to kill the meek, crippled Dyson. Burton is losing his sanity over the evil ravings of what once was his favorite student and fears for the safety of another.
Twists and turns are yet to come and let us not forget that writer Shaffer also penned the magnificent Sleuth released in 1972 pitting Michael Caine against Laurence Olivier for two plus wonderful hours of gamesmanship.
This is indeed a cruel joke of a movie and Burton takes the brunt of it finally going over the edge and coming on strong when the script called for it. Too strong perhaps? Not quite though he borders on it at times as he was known to do. Burton would also appear in another thriller the same year as this Anthony Page film that received a much wider release, The Medusa Touch which featured more of that popular topic of the times, telekinesis. Burton was a very busy actor at this point in his career having divorced from Liz a second time. Along with Medusa, he’d also take the lead in the big budget The Wild Geese in 78 and for my money the best mercenary flick of them all.
Apparently Absolution never received a theatrical release and seems to have descended into bargain bins everywhere. That hasn’t stopped Kino Lorber from issuing a blu ray edition of the film giving it a look that exceeds the many budget label editions that are easy to be found. An above average thriller that I had seen years ago and it’s not one that is easy to forget which in turn makes it somehow memorable and worth a look. For the Burton fans and those that enjoy a good thriller.