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Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #39: A Man For All Seasons (1966)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: Fred Zinneman
Starring: Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw

To some a film about Sir Thomas More’s refusal to take an Oath of Supremacy and sanction Henry VIII’s annulment of his first marriage in order to marry Anne Boyleyn sounds, well, just a little dry. However, this film, which vibrates with life and intelligence, is anything but boring. With a compelling performance by Paul Scofield at its center and an electric supporting performance by Robert Shaw as Henry VIII, this is easily one of the most entertaining and engaging historical films ever made.

The stage is set at the beginning of the film by Cardinal Wolsey, played by Orson Welles who, as always, brings something a little special to the film (even a bad film is kind of good when Welles is involved). King Henry is seeking a divorce and Wolsey has summoned Sir Thomas More (Scofield) in an attempt to persuade him to change his position and support the King’s pursuit. It’s more or less a matter of politics, Wolsey explains, not a moral issue. More’s response is the heart of the story: “When statesmen forsake their own private consciences for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” For More, a man who goes against what he feels is right has no place in a position of power. The film is smart in the way that it grounds More’s conviction less in a vague sense of what the public might think of him and makes his immediate concern the opinion of his beloved daughter Meg (Susannah York). His struggle really is a personal one, not just in the way that it sets his own soul at ease, but also in the way that it allows him to look at his daughter with the certainty that whatever happens, she’ll know that he stood for something.

More’s refusal to spout the party line eventually leads to his imprisonment. He’s given numerous opportunities to change his stance, he’s debated with and mocked and separated from his family. He’s told that the oath doesn’t really mean anything, but still he stands firm in his refusal to swear it. Words mean something, More argues, and he won’t swear an oath he doesn’t believe in for the sake of convenience, because he believes that he’ll have to answer for it in the afterlife. Religious belief and argument play a fairly sizeable role in the film, but it isn’t preachy. This isn’t a story that aims to sway you to one side of the religious spectrum; it just means to show that religious affiliation is meaningless if you don’t stand for its tenets.

Scofield delivers an amazing performance as a man who has faith but is not fanatical, who wants to please but not if it will compromise his soul. There are no histrionics here, even when More must defend himself at Hampton Court. He is from beginning to end a steady, reasonable man, a man with serious issues to contend with who nevertheless retains his wit and sense of humour. As Henry VIII, Robert Shaw is simply larger than life, the energy of his performance seeming to expand the very limits of the screen. He delivers a complex, layered performance, showing us a man who is willing to bully and dominate in order to get what he wants, but is also plagued by insecurity stemming from the idea that what he’s doing really isn’t right. If More was to fall in line like everyone else, it wouldn’t just be a matter of saving face for Henry, it would also reassure him that he isn’t acting out of the bounds of his own authority.

The performances really make the film but something must also be said about the art direction and costume design. The color pallet (which reminds me quite a bit of another vibrant film - The Adventures of Robin Hood) helps bring the film so vividly to life, especially in the scenes involving Henry VIII, whose clothes are colourful and overpowering in the same way as his personality. In contrast, the costumes designed for Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) are appropriately subdued and dour, reflecting his personality. All the elements in this film, from top to bottom, come together fluidly and complement each other perfectly. If you’re looking for a movie that matches its style to its substance, look no further.

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