It’s rather liberating to go in to a movie practically blind and then get absolutely mindblown how good the movie turns out to be. On the surface the story isn’t much, it’s basically a tale of two friends in the court of Medieval England getting estranged when their duties of their respective offices clash and the inevitable, bloody outcome of their feud. Hardly anything ground breaking, though the period setting does borrow a lot of flair to the story but even then this could have very easily been very dreary affair with little to show for it. Especially given the two and half hour long running time. But fortunately for us, we’ve got Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton to make sure that does not happen, and instead make the entire movie be superbly mesmerizing experience.
Out of the two main players, Peter O’Toole is absolutely phenomenal and basically steals the entire movie with his brilliant performance as King Henry II. He does marvelous work by convincingly painting multiple different layers to his character, instead of being a very one note villain of the story. Your heart nearly breaks in the last third act when he’s physically breaking down from having to fight his beloved friend due to the demands of his role as the King: he cannot back off or even compromise, in fear of losing his regal authority over the realm and letting the church get the better of him. Richard Burton isn’t bad either, but he can’t really compete to the manic energy of O’Toole’s character when Burton’s own titular role as Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, demands a far more reserved, subtle and stoic approach. He simply leaves less of an impression due to how bound and concealed his emotions are. Burton does get to do a very compelling, fatalistic and noble depiction of Becket, even if his kind nature does suffer a bit from being too one dimensional, an unfortunate side effect of being so portrayed so godly and devoted of a man. Joined together, O’Toole and Burton offer an intimate and exciting historic spectacle that leaves nobody cold and does not contain any dull moments. It’s just that good.