Saturday, July 30, 2011

Political Intrigue And Great Lines Make A Man For All Seasons!

The Good: Good costumes, Good cinematography, Generally good acting, Interesting character, Good lines.
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features, Pacing issues
The Basics: A decent classic film, A Man For All Seasons tells the story of the demise of Sir Thomas More as he stood by his principles against Henry VIII!

It has been a long time since I sat down and watched a 1960s-produced period drama of times long past. In high school, I loved the Zeffirelli version of Romeo & Juliet. Since then, about the only similar film I have seen and enjoyed was A Lion In Winter. So it was certainly atypical that I should sit down and watch A Man For All Seasons. Given my appreciation for Church intrigue, I was quickly drawn into the film, which won the 1966 Best Picture Oscar.

A Man For All Seasons is based upon the play by the same name. As always, it is worth noting that this is a review of the film only, not the play nor historical events. This is intended to be a rather pure review of A Man For All Seasons as a work of entertainment. Even so, it is worth noting right off the bat that director Fred Zinnemann uses the cinematic medium quite well and the movie does not look, nor feel, like a stage play set on the big screen.

Sir Thomas More is called by the Cardinal Wosley to discuss the fact that King Henry VIII is not going to have a child with his wife. Concerned about dynastic wars within the monarchy and the Church's inability to negotiate such struggles, the Cardinal charges More with figuring out a solution to the problem of the King's potential to have a child with his mistress and the problems that will result in. Returning home, Sir Thomas finds a suitor for his daughter and a young man seeking favors waiting and his family curious about the future of England. With an abrupt death of Wolsey, More is promoted to Chancellor and becomes even more mired in the politics of the royal court as Henry VIII considers him a friend. Henry turns to More to find a way for him to get out of his marriage. Demanding a divorce, Henry puts More's life on the line and to keep his neck, More stands by as Henry rids England of the Catholic Church.

When that happens, More is put in the awkward position of being the last Roman Catholic in England. Refusing to swear an oath validating the divorce and the new marriage, More is persecuted and imprisoned. But while the courts figure out a charge - no easy task as he has remained brilliantly silent on the matter - More suffers for his principles.

Shockingly, A Man For All Seasons is surprisingly engaging and actually fun to watch. Despite most of the film being about one man standing by his principles and not much actually happening, the film is a pleasure to watch and generally well-performed. The way the film compensates for not having much in the way of movement or even character development - More starts as a man of principle and finishes the film with an equal sense of resolve without actually developing or changing - is through the dialogue. A Man For All Seasons is filled with witty banter and great lines. More is a man of faith who uses law and logic and virtually every one of his lines is a clever recitation of a loophole or simple fact. While others around him assume his thoughts and beliefs, he refuses to correct them until his life is imperiled and then his words are so simple that there is a delightful quality to them that almost makes the description "wicked" applicable. More is presented almost as a collection of colloquialisms and logic-table retorts that make one feel like they are watching a truly keen mind in action.

By contrast, King Henry VIII's scene is passionate, boisterous and loud. Presented as a crazed crackpot, Henry is an obvious foil to More, even though he is barely on the screen at all. A force for which virtually all of the other characters work, Henry is characterized as energetic and illogical. Far more of a presence on screen is the dogmatic Cromwell, whose purpose is to act as a literal adversary to Sir Thomas. Comwell, using the ambitious Rich, works to entrap and convict Sir Thomas and he is slimy, active and hotheaded. Like More, he does not so much develop throughout the film as he attains more power to menace Sir Thomas. The result is a pair of characters fighting throughout the film with verbal jabs. The film is engaging because Sir Thomas very coolly deflects the advances and jibes of Cromwell, which frustrates Cromwell and his allies.

Throughout, More retains a friend in Norfolk, who begs Sir Thomas to take the oath and get himself off the hook. Norfolk is in some ways the most pitiable character as he agrees with the position Sir Thomas has taken, but is not in a politically viable place to survive standing up the way Sir Thomas is. As a result, he becomes part of the body Cromwell uses to convict More, even though it is not what he wants at all.

A Man For All Seasons is performed by an able and exceptional cast. Led by Paul Scofield, as Sir Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons is a collection of great performances. Classically trained, Scofield brings a strong theatrical sensibility to his role of More and manages to make the role dramatic through minimalism as opposed to melodrama. He is tight-lipped and wonderful as the persecuted Catholic and he makes the principled moments equally real as the moments More spends with his loving and distraught family.

Scofield is supported through performances by Wendy Hiller (More's wife, Alice), Susannah York (Meg, More's daughter), Robert Shaw (Henry VIII) and a very young John Hurt (Richard Rich). Orson Welles has what amounts to a cameo performance as Cardinal Wosley and he is decent in the role. Leo McKern is appropriately monolithic as Cromwell, but his performance is quite good. It is Nigel Davenport as the Duke of Norfolk who has arguably the most impressive range in the film. Davenport play Norfolk as a man caught in an unenviable position of having to convict his friend and he plays it with genuine pathos. There are moments he expresses more with his eyes than many actors ever present with the lines they deliver.

On DVD, A Man For All Seasons is remarkably anemic. In fact, there is only a featurette on the actual life of Sir Thomas More. The featurette points out the differences with reality and the film, but is generally educational. There are no other featurettes or bonus features (though there were two preview trailers for other period dramas before the movie) and this is a bit disappointing for the supposed magnitude of the film.

For a story of a principled man standing by his beliefs, it is hard to go wrong with A Man For All Seasons, even if it is a bit of a one-trick pony.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is online here! Please check it out!]

For other films featuring John Hurt, please visit my reviews of:
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone
The Lord Of The Rings (1978 animated)


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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