Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Murder in the Cathedral, on

Here is an odd-sounding couple: T.S. Eliot, the unofficial poet laureate of conservatism and Father John Groser, a leader in the Anglican socialist movement. Yet, somehow, they came together to bring to the screen Eliot’s passion-like verse play depicting Archbishop Thomas Becket’s final days. It is not for mass-market tastes, but there are great insights to be found when George Hoellering’s long unavailable Murder in the Cathedral starts streaming this Thursday on

Essentially, Becket’s dispute with Henry II boiled down to how much the Church could render unto Caesar while still maintaining its institutional integrity. Frankly, this is not an academic debate. One could argue the current Pope has conceded far more authority to the CCP in China than Becket could ever accept. He routinely pledged his loyalty to his King and country, but he steadfastly insisted nothing could supersede his vows to his God and Church.

Essentially, the film consists of Henry’s inquisition, Backet’s departure and return from exile, and his murder by four knights loyal to the King. That last part should not be a spoiler. Even if you do not know the history, you should know how the Peter O’Toole-Richard Burton film
Becket ended. (If you don’t, it’s a minor miracle you got past “Eliot’s verse play.”)

Hoellering’s approach to Eliot’s play is uncompromisingly faithful and rigorously Spartan, with extensive passages for choruses, either speaking in turn or in unison. Canterbury Cathedral looks cold and drafty, but also hallowed and holy. Arguably, this might be the most authentically medieval-looking film that does not wallow in the muck, mire, and pestilence.

In fact, the austerity of Hoellering’s vision is partly why it is so arresting. Indeed, the film reminds us that some of the most visually arresting films have had religious themes. In terms of look and tone,
Cathedral can easily sit next to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. The three films would make an inspired but exhausting triple feature.

It is demanding material, but it is never dry, thanks in large measure to Groser’s riveting performance. He carries the weight of the world with equal parts compassion and conviction. He certainly looks more like a saint in the making than Burton ever did. Eliot himself is perfectly cast as the voice the unseen fourth “Tempter,” who tries to appeal to Becket’s vanity with the glory of martyrdom. (Viewers should also be on the lookout for Leo McKern, the future Rumpole, who plays the Third murderous Knight.)

Eliot’s text also rewards the digging and unpacking it requires, especially passages like Becket’s Christmas sermon, which instructs his flock not to consider the Lord’s peace a kind of peacenik peace. It is the peace of imprisoned and distressed, who refused to compromise their consciences. Yet, the kicker comes from the Knights themselves. Speaking directly to the audience, they challenge us to honestly consider whose values more closely align with ours: the secularism of the murderers or the ecclesiastical discipline of Becket? Good question, right?

This is a thought-provoking film that deserves more accolades and deep-dive analysis. There is even a decidedly gothic chess match with a tempter that predates
The Seventh Seal by about six years. Very highly recommended for intelligent viewers, Murder in the Cathedral starts streaming tomorrow (5/26) on