When T.S. Eliot consented to an adaptation of his 1935 verse drama Murder in the Cathedral, his vision of the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, he predicted a “very unusual film”. He wasn’t wrong. George Hoellering’s picture is a cold, austere vision, full of linguistic poetry; undeniably stagy but also packing in moral crises that remind of Ingmar Bergman and the Carl Theodor Dreyer. Murder in the Cathedral, despite its incantation-like verse structure, delivers a strangely ethereal quality on screen.
Eliot wrote the play when fascism was on the rise in Europe, and many have suggested it is Eliot’s comments on fighting authority figures at the time. Thomas Becket was once a friend and courtier of King Henry II, but became estranged with royalty when he made clear that he would side with the Church over the King in religious matters. He fled to France for seven years, and on his return, visited, like Christ, by tempters – that he will find safety should he should bow down to the King or try to overthrow him by force.
A fourth tempter – a quirky, off-screen cameo by Eliot himself – offers Becket the glory of self-sacrificial martyrdom. He’s a sucker for it, conscious that sainthood is in the offing, albeit that it is “the greatest treason / To do the right deed for the wrong reason”. Murdered by four soldiers on the King’s orders, in a subversive twist at the film’s conclusion, the killers turn directly to the camera, asking the audience who should really take the 800 years of blame for Becket’s death. Eliot was ever the pious religious type (he called himself “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament,”) and yet it’s curious that the religious scenes here have the feel of the moral crises of Bergman – a noted atheist. A scene in which Becket plays chess with one of his tempters might be a reference to 1957’s The Seventh Seal if Murder in the Cathedral hadn’t been made a full six years earlier. Noted Hungarian composer László Lajtha offers vibrant, if schizophrenic musical interludes that add something thoroughly European to the setting.
However, Hoellering can’t undock the text from its theatrical moorings, perhaps because he is too loyal to the text he is adapting. The production designs out of a disused church in St John’s Wood, London are also too stiff and fail to deliver the grandiosity of Canterbury Cathedral, and actors deliver Eliot’s verse like incantation, a dated theatrical technique unlike the conversational way Shakespearean verse has been spoken on stage since the 1960s. The exception is the Archbishop himself, played by non-actor and actual East End priest John Croser, who adds sincerity and poise to the role, if not the required gravitas. He’s cast alongside a number of actors of the era, many from the Old Vic (soon to be Olivier’s National Theatre), making the film perhaps most notable as a time capsule of British theatre of the time.
Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl