OK, here goes.
You know, one thing you hear a lot about is discussion of what’s called “rape culture,” which is to say the prevalence in the media of images that portray rape as natural or acceptable or not that big a deal or something that women secretly want or what have you. And I mean, I am aware of that concept and I am aware of it when it is pointed out to me, but it was not until I started doing these historical movie reviews that I realised … I mean, these are three randomly selected historical Hollywood epics that I’ve done over the last month (not counting The Madness of King George) and all I can say is …
Jesus H. God, what is it with these movies and the raping?
So, anyway, this is the story of Henry II and Thomas Becket, and deals with how Becket went from being regular old Thomas to Saint Thomas, i.e. being hacked up with swords right there in Canterbury Cathedral. It is based on a play by Jean Anouilh. Now, Anouilh famously got his information from an old book he bought in a second-hand shop because he liked the cover. And I am 100% behind this type of thinking. But it helps to double-check your sources when you do something like that. Observe:
When I read that I clenched everything I had to clench. And, weirdly, there is a ton of this Saxon-Norman malarkey in the first third of the movie or so, and then it just disappears until the very end when it crops up again.
Anyway, we begin with a flash-forward to after Becket’s death, then back to where Henry and Thomas are getting their drank on and wenching together. Initially, this is portrayed as good-natured hijinks, which, you know, whatever. But it turns dark as fuck when Becket and Henry get into one of this awkward social situations we all know so well. You know how it is when you’re out riding with your homie and you run into some old guy’s hut where he lives with his daughter, so you decide to send your troops and take her into sex slavery, but then when you get home to talk to your prisoner-of-war/mistress she talks about how she loves you and then you freak out, and the king reminds you that you promised him a favour and so he asks if it’s OK to rape you mistress, and you say yes, so she kills herself?
Yeah, how often have we heard that story.
Anyway, to go back to the Saxon-Norman thing, obviously Thomas Becket was not a Saxon. His parents were called Gilbert and Matilda, which is hardly Eadwulf and Cyneburh, and they were from Norman families. So there’s that.
Hmm hmm hmm.
Now, the film chooses to portray the relationship between Henry and Thomas as all about love, and if you were to suggest that there was a homosexual subtext here, I would say that maybe you don’t quite grasp the concept of subtext.
So the whole rape-suicide thing is part and parcel of how this film treats women, which is not that they’re sexy sex objects that exist only to get raped into love (like in The Conqueror), but just that they’re basically meaningless props whose sole function is to provide plot points for the lives and struggles of men. It is only fair of me to say that this is an improvement on the last couple. It’s just still a little discouraging.
Other than that, hmm. OK, this film is pretty good, and it deviates from the history in details but gets the outline more or less right (like, in reality the process of Becket and the king falling out was much longer and more complicated, or in the movie Henry II and Eleanor have four children, whereas in reality they had like nine). The only thing that is just flat bullshit is, you know, the whole tormented relationship between Henry and Becket, which is the thing the whole film is about.
Like I said, this movie was adapted from a play, and there are some very play-like elements about it. For instance, there are little groups of three to four guys that hang out in most of the scenes: Henry has four drunken barons, Louis VII has like three supercilious French noblemen, there are three scheming cardinals, and the previous archbishop of Canterbury is accompanied by these three charmers:
Weirdly, the French have supercilious English accents, the better to convey their effete snobbery, but the Italians, represented by the Pope and his henchlings, have full-on you-like-a-to-meet-my-cousin-Guiiiiido comedy Italian accents.
What else? I mean, it’s a well-made movie. O’Toole in particular is playing the role he would go on to play so well in 1968′s The Lion in Winter. So these dudes have their hyper-intense unrequited love story and they just act the absolute fuck out of it. And there’s lots of great location stuff, big spectacular shots like you only get in a proper old Hollywood epic. So that’s nice.
So, yeah. This is a pretty good movie, but boy does it not give two shits about the female characters in it, which considering one of them is Eleanor of Goddamn Aquitaine is coming it pretty high.