One day at this Catholic boys school, the head priest, Father Goddard (Richard Burton) is approached in the grounds by an itinerant named Blakey (Billy Connolly) who tries to persuade him to take him on as a handyman, odd job man, even gardener, but his request falls on deaf ears and Goddard sends him away, making his lack of interest very clear. This does not stop Blakey from setting up a camp in the nearby forest, and attracting the attention of some the pupils, specifically Benjie Stanfield (Dominic Guard) who makes friends with him. But Goddard, whose faith is absolute, wishes to guide Benjie to the path to the priesthood, and Blakey is a bad influence...
Absolution was a troubled, relatively low budget production shot largely on location in England where director Anthony Page put the surrounding woodland and chilly school halls and corridors to good use. He also put Burton to good use, as he had been enthusiastic about the project for a number of years, probably because it had been penned by Anthony Shaffer whose Sleuth had been both the talk of the theatre world and subsequently a very successful and well-liked film. Yet this little item didn't carry the same cachet somehow, and was either poorly distributed or largely ignored, despite such novelties as featuring comedian Billy Connolly's first film role, serious, too.
After his meteoric rise in stand-up he was evidently wishing to make the most of his new opportunities, not that Connolly was doing far more acting than Burton, as while he was playing a character, he approached it in the exact same way as he would anything else he performed, as often in his films, he seemed to be playing himself. Burton was awarded the juicier role, and it would have been nice to see him sparring with the comic, but for some reason after that initial confrontation the screenplay kept them apart as the wanderer and the priest conducted a low-key battle for Benjie's soul. However, what Page counted on sustaining our interest was a suspense thriller twist.
There's a reason Absolution is not as discussed as much as Shaffer's other screenplays such as Sleuth or The Wicker Man, or even his Agatha Christie adaptations, and it is not wholly down to the lack of visibility for the work. It is more that just as the plot was settling down for an intriguing moral drama, suddenly it had no more conviction for that area and decided to put Goddard through the emotional wringer instead when it introduced a murder element to the scenario. A little more foreshadowing might have prepared us for this, but as it was the thrills simply came across as increasingly silly, just as its predecessors in such similar seventies efforts as Unman, Wittering and Zigo or Child's Play (not the killer doll opus), though even they had a stronger degree of credibility to them.
The revelation that one of the characters was, in essence, a criminal mastermind out to test the faith of the faithful in a manner suggesting he was nothing less than Satan himself was hard to swallow, to say the least, but it was by no means all bad, as Burton in particular was able to carry the film just over the finishing line before it collapsed in a heap. Connolly, as mentioned, was not stretching himself but was a more subtly powerful presence than you might initially think (and yes, he did play his banjo), Guard was appropriately ambiguous and potential victim David Bradley, who had made such an early impact in Kes, demonstrated he was no one-hit wonder, taking the potentially caricatured schoolboy sporting a leg brace and a whiny, ingratiating manner and making him someone we could understand and fear for. There was some controversy over whether Shaffer had been "inspired" by another source, which may be another motive for the film's relatively orphaned status, so the fact they actually completed it was an achievement of sorts. Music by Stanley Myers.