Anthony Shaffer's scripts are nearly always identifiable by the way they stay cleverly one step ahead of the viewer. In his original scripts, such as The Wicker Man and Sleuth, Shaffer skilfully hides shocking and memorable twists right up to the films' conclusion. Also in his adapted scripts such as Frenzy and Death On The Nile - Shaffer manages to generate lots of mystery and suspense before delivering his trademark surprise-solutions. However, in Absolution, a 1978 film scripted by Shaffer and directed by Anthony Page, the twists are somewhat overdone. Indeed, the film becomes positively excessive in its determination to lead the viewer up various blind alleys, in pursuit of countless red herrings. Slowly but surely credibility is strained, until it collapses altogether at the film's preposterous climax. This is a shame, as the film has an intriguing concept and contains some good performances.
At a particularly strict Catholic boarding school, a pupil named Ben Stanfield (Dominic Guard) grows fed up with his reputation as the teacher's pet of priest Father Goddard (Richard Burton). In a moment of outrageous mischief, he speaks to Father Goddard in the confession box and confesses to him that he has murdered a fellow pupil named Arthur Dyson (Dai Bradley). Goddard is understandably distraught to learn of this, more so because he is bound by duty to keep secret all confessions that are made to him. Later Goddard goes to the place where Ben claims to have buried the corpse, but discovers when he digs it up that it is merely a scarecrow and that he has been the victim of a nasty prank. The plot thickens when Ben again tells Father Goddard that he has murdered his fellow student, but this time a real body turns up. The mental strain on Goddard is immense. On one hand, he knows who the killer is, but on the other he can do nothing because his religion says that whatever is passed in confidence in a confession box must remain forever secret. Mad with despair, Goddard takes desperate measures to put a stop to these evil pranks, only to learn too late that all is not what it seems
Burton's performance as the priest is pretty good. One must admit that the film is far-fetched and reaches a delirious, hysterical tone by the end, but throughout Burton manages to give a believable and absorbing performance. The pacing is quite good too, with a deliberately slow build-up that lures the viewer into a false sense of security before the genuinely nasty stuff gets underway. In some ways it seems churlish to criticise Shaffer's script for its twists, because they do at least keep the audience guessing, and few will predict what is coming next. But the thing that makes most of Shaffer's earlier works so effective is that the twists fit in to the overall narrative with eerie plausibility, whereas in this one they seem extremely contrived and over-the-top. I certainly don't agree with some reviewers who suggest that the film is an unmitigated disaster, and the fact that U.S distributors shelved the film for 10 years is very unfair in light of some of the absolute rubbish they release straight away. Absolution is a mid-quality audience teaser, not plausible enough to have any long-lasting resonance but tangled enough to keep its audience guessing.