“I trust I make myself obscure”
Considering my only entry point into the history of England during the reign of King Henry VIII comes from the first season of Showtime’s “The Tudors,” (a quality program, perhaps a tad too salacious than absolutely necessary), I was more than obliged to take a friend up on his offer to watch the Oscar-winning A Man for All Seasons. The world is full of coincidence and having this film come up now seemed perfect. I have been awaiting the conclusion of season two before viewing “The Tudors” this year, recently wondered about actor Paul Scofield’s death being as big news as it was, (being the first I’ve seen of him, I can already understand, he is fantastic), and then I had just seen the new Indiana Jones with an elderly John Hurt, included here, among a pretty big name cast, in one of his first roles. It seemed the stars had aligned for a bit of period drama, something that director Fred Zimmemann does not skimp on, nor does he push back the historical facts brought in by playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt. If nothing else, all involved gave me a new man to idolize—Sir Thomas More. The man had pride, moral scruples, and an unrivaled intelligence. This is his story, a tale of a man caught in the middle of right and wrong, and choosing what was easy or correct.
The plot begins at the point where Cardinal Wolsey, (a bombastic Orson Welles—when is he not—in a role much smaller than anticipated), has failed to persuade the Pope to grant Henry VIII his divorce. Henry is attempting to relinquish the bond so that he may marry Anne Boleyn, (a very young Vanessa Redgrave, perhaps included due to her brother’s involvement in the film?), and produce the heir that has been eluding him. Having married his dead brother’s wife, in order to keep the country together, he is saying that the union was created in sin, and thus not true in the eyes of God. Being that the Pope himself was asked to allow that first marriage to occur, there was little chance he’d reverse his own decision by granting the divorce.
In comes Sir Thomas More, a lawyer and old trusted friend to the King. He is a man of principle and thus a man for whom Henry takes a large stake in his opinions. Himself a man of slight conviction, Henry knows he can have the divorce and be done with it; however, he needs his friend More’s approval for his own piece of mind. Because he knows he won’t receive it, he feigns acceptance and his word that More would be left out of the proceedings so as not to be looked upon as a traitor to the crown. Unfortunately, a young fellow, Richard Rich, trying to make his start in the world of the royal court, once rebuked by More, is working with Thomas Cromwell, a man looking to take the lawyer down. More must sever ties with his friends and family, taking an ironclad stance of silence on the subject of the King’s divorce. If he never tells anyone his true opinion verbally—although the entire country knew it anyways—no one could blow him in, even when swearing on the Bible. A shrewd man, More continues to live his life with the knowledge that he will never give in to temptation, never sacrifice his convictions, yet also never see freedom again.
There is absolute superb acting throughout. Scofield is magnificent as More, showing the multifaceted construct of his core self. A family man above all else and a man strictly loyal to his King and country, despite the turmoil and scandal happening around him, Scofield portrays even the harsh moments with a sense of dignity and honor. When it is brought to his attention that a Lutheran has asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he declines with an airtight case as to why, despite how much he enjoys the young suitor calling. He will raise his voice, he will give orders as his status deems he is able to as a man and member of the court, however, he will only do so if it is for a just reason. Always respected, even his friend the Duke of Norfolk, (a nice turn from Nigel Davenport), can’t get angry with him when More begins a barrage of insults. Eventually, of course, the Duke must walk away before things get too out of hand, but even then he does so because he couldn’t bare hurting his peer. The whole sequence between these two is my favorite: More laying a trap with words in order for Norfolk to fall into and see his side of the situation. Expertly written and executed, that scene right after Scofield gives up the title recently given to him barely eclipses the courtroom encounter and final diatribe from the man, aimed at the lemmings set before him to judge and pass sentence.
Never feeling overlong, or confusing, the film spans a number of years, from the beginning of More’s unswayed, steady tongue to the final breath he takes. Everyone gets older and the world changes around them as one by one they all sign their names over to the King, agreeing to his divorce and second marriage. Watching Scofield get older and the vermin Rich, (expertly played by the aforementioned Hurt), get more and more affluent with the years shows how unjust the world can be. A man with moral fortitude gets thrown to the wolves while one that can be bought and sold at the toss of a hat prospers endlessly. If I have one complaint at all, it is with the fact that Robert Shaw’s Henry VIII doesn’t come back into the fold after his brief appearance at the center of the film. His manic mood swings and infectious smile are endearing and a joy to watch. Henry must have been the first true Attention Deficit Disorder patient.
A Man for All Seasons 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½