Tuesday, May 27, 2014


I’ve seen a lot of films in my day, which means that I’ve sat through a lot of great films and a lot of crappy ones (Nacho Libre I’m looking in your direction). So it’s always a pleasant surprise to feel like you can still discover a film that falls into the former category, and so it was for me with A Man for All Seasons. I knew nothing about this film prior to watching it, but came away impressed most of all with its steadfast rendering of the topic of faith and conviction with such thoughtful depth. On this point, the film felt fresh and bold, as there aren’t many films then or today that can match it in the arena of intellectual vigor, particularly where Christian beliefs are concerned.
Directed by the versatile Fred Zinnemann, who first clutched Oscar gold for From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons boasts a cast of distinguished British players, namely Paul Schofield, Dame Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw and Susannah York. Added into this mix for good fun is Orson Welles, an American legend who makes an extended, unforgettable cameo, due to his talents as an actor, but also because he looks like he swallowed a hot air balloon. The Academy knighted the film with five Oscars, including Best Picture for 1966; a victory with a hint of upset over its juggernaut competition in the form of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 

While there are many things to admire in A Man for All Seasons, to me the two most salient elements are the performances and the script. Adapted from Robert Bolt’s play of the same name, A Man for All Seasons recounts the final period of Sir Thomas More, a well-respected Lord Chancellor during the reign of King Henry the VIII in the early 16th century. The film examines the anchored depths of More’s conscience as he finds himself at loggerheads with the King when he refuses to forego his religious convictions in favor of sanctioning Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, an act forbidden by the Catholic Church at that time. The King’s rich-kid petulance over this snub opens the door for More’s political rivals to yoke him to corrupt charges of treason, ultimately sending him to his death.    

In a sense, the screenplay is the true star of the film, akin to the manner in which the screenplay is the star of Pulp Fiction. The script muses on and illustrates the interconnecting properties of faith, the rule of law and the trappings of virtues sold for profit, among other philosophical points. What’s remarkable is that the dialogue unites the conceptual equivalent of cats and dogs, managing to be both scholarly and entertaining. For anyone who’s ever done a master’s degree in political science knows that scholarly and entertaining are thoroughly divorced from one another.

Among the many noteworthy sequences of dialogue, there are many kernels embedded in the exchange between More and the Cardinal Wolsey, who vainly attempts to persuade him to give a thumbs up to the divorce so that the King can marry Anne Boleyn.  

Cardinal Wolsey: That... thing out there; at least she's fertile.
Sir Thomas More: She's not his wife.
Cardinal Wolsey: No, Catherine's his wife and she's barren as a brick; are you going to pray for a miracle?
Sir Thomas More: There are precedents.

Obviously, wonderful conversations like these require the abilities of capable actors to unlock their wit and wisdom. Everyone in A Man for All Seasons is truly equal to the task, even Vanessa Redgrave, who, as Anne Boleyn, does nothing but make eyes at Henry VIII. Everyone inhabits their roles so precisely that the story’s events elicit genuine admiration, frustration and ultimately rage at the injustices wielded about. Paul Schofield is nothing if not commendable as Sir Thomas More. It’s a role that would seem to tempt actors to tread heavily into noble and passionate gestures and tones. But Schofield tethers his performance to the virtues of restraint, expressing More’s convictions like a mountain: quiet, majestic, yet immovable.

John Hurt also gives a standout performance as Richard Rich; a nebbish, rat-faced acquaintance of More’s who scuttles around his ankles, begging him for a position in the King’s Court. The antithesis of principle, Rich eventually sells out to aid the forces conspiring to bring More down in exchange for an appointment at court. Hurt perfectly embodies the insecure man with a storefront stocked full of virtues ready to be sold to anyone for the right price. His trembling manner and anxious expression imbue him with rodent-like characteristics that make the final courtroom scene an unforgettable moment when Rich quivers in bearing false testimony against More.

If there is one complaint worth registering against the film, it’s that visibly it felt too sensible and plain, which is disappointing from a director like Zinnemann. I suppose it’s due to the fact that it’s based on a theatrical work, but in several stretches the film felt like a recorded play on stage. Snooze. It’s exciting and energetic to experience live theater, sure, but it can be downright dull to watch theater on film. It drags and can be uninspiring. At times, A Man for All Seasons comes perilously close to putting its foot in those traps. It doesn’t use space effectively. The power and potential effects of editing are reduced to a minimum. Scenery is underutilized to foment any shock and awe. It feels largely unimaginative; eschewing the freedoms that a film adaptation can offer in so many areas that a confined stage can’t.

But the fact that A Man for All Seasons has the drab look of an old BBC production and can still retain electricity and wit is a testament to the films overall strength. It's not going to be put into a corner. But if you can forgive the film of it visual shortcomings, it’s a rewarding cinematic experience, one that you’re not likely to find among new releases today, given the indifference and/or hostility toward telling stories of men of great faith and courage. (And no, the current version of Noah doesn’t count).

Favorite Line: When More denies Rich’s request to help him secure a position in court, More suggests an different profession for him altogether, while simultaneously teaching him a lesson in the importance of perspective. 

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: you; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

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