Murder and religion become entwined in Absolution, a dark mystery/thriller penned by the noted English playwright Anthony Shaffter, whose other film projects include the revered Sleuth (1972) and the notorious The Wicker Man (1973). While Absolution does not rise to the heights of those pictures, it is nonetheless a brisk piece filled with creepy implications about the capacity young people have to commit physical and psychological violence. The inevitable twist ending might strike some viewers as a bit of a stretch, and, indeed, the final scene—which features an Agatha Christie-style explanation for various mysterious events—is laborious. Nonetheless, artful dialogue, meticulous characterizations, and the presence of the great Richard Burton in the starring role make Absolution quite worthwhile.
Burton, looking much the worse for wear after years of alcoholism and phoned-in performances, stars as Father Goddard, a strict teacher at a Catholic school in England. Shaky in his faith and weary from too many years on the job, Goddard plays favorites, heaping praise on standout student Stanfield (Dominic Guard) and incessently belittling handicapped nerd Dyson (Dai Bradley). However, when a motorcycle-riding hippie named Blakey (Billy Connolly) sets up a campsite in the woods near the school, it’s Stanfield who defies Goddard by befriending the charming stranger. Realizing that he’s misjudged Stanfield rattles Goddard, and then things get truly grim—Stanfield tells Goddard, during confession, that he’s killed Blakey. Worse, Stanfield torments Goddard based on the rule that Goddard cannot reveal anything shared in confession. The situation spirals from there, with Goddard’s sanity becoming as endangered as the lives of the other students whom Stanfield threatens.
Shaffer apparently wrote Absolution as a play first, though the ingenious premise (confession as a cover for murder) works well cinematically given Shaffer’s use of indoor and outdoor locations to represent different worlds pulled into conflict with each other. Naturally, the dialogue is quite sharp, though Shaffer’s wordplay perpetually teeters on the line between clever and pretentious.(At one point, Goddard derides Blakey by saying, “Freedom’s a banner the unscrupulous frequently march under.”) Yet the lofty language suits the milieu, and the actors all render words so skillfully that the high-minded approach works. Further, director Anthony Page and his collaborators create an ominous mood with shadowy cinematography, the efficacy of which is maximized by Stanley Myers’ excellent suspense score. Plus, as do all good thrillers, Absolution creates a disturbing sense of inevitability, with each dark turn of the story signaling a deeper descent into oblivion.
FYI, business complications prevented Absolution from reaching the U.S. until the late ’80s, when it was unceremoniously dumped on the public like a straight-to-video cheapie.