Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Movie Review: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A Man for All Seasons (1966) written by Robert Bolt (from his stage play) and directed by Fred Zinnemann

This faithful telling of Saint Thomas More's life is not so much a life-to-death biography but a character portrait drawn from the final years of his life.

The movie begins with the great controversy of the time, King Henry VIII's desire to divorce his wife Catherine. They've been unable to produce a male heir and Henry has become infatuated with Anne Boleyn. The Chancellor of England, Cardinal Wolsey, has failed to convince Rome to allow the divorce. When Wolsey interviews More in the film's first scene, More explains the tricky situation--the pope made a dispensation so that Henry could marry Catherine (she was Henry's brother's widow) and now they are going to ask for a dispensation from the dispensation. Awkward. More refuses to support Wolsey's efforts which Wolsey finds annoying. Soon enough, Wolsey dies and More is named the next chancellor (ahead of the scheming Thomas Cromwell, secretary to Wolsey). The king visits Thomas at home and has a difficult conversation about the situation. Henry is convinced that he is living in sin by being married to his brother's wife and the lack of male heirs is a sign of God's punishment. More is resolute, though as non-confrontational as he can be--he will not help with the divorce. The king tries his utmost to convince him but finally promises More that he will leave More out of the issue. Henry isn't yet the bloated tyrant who kills off his wives willy nilly, though it is easy to see how he gets there from here.

The deeper issue is the King wants More's approval because More is the most honest man he knows. His integrity is all the more impressive because he is very intelligent and very compassionate. More's daughter is interested romantically in Will Roper, a man who's converted to Lutheranism. More refuses to allow a marriage but leaves things open if Roper will come back to the church. He doesn't forbid them from seeing each other and gives Roper subtle nudges to encourage his return. Richard Rich is a young colleague of More's who wants a position at court. More recommends a teaching position, something with little appeal to the ambitious Rich. More knows Rich will have a hard time resisting the corruption at court. Rich vacillates between More, whom he admires for his integrity, and Cromwell, who is more willing to advance Rich (but with costs). The king knows More's character and that his approval would be a sign that Henry is right in divorcing Catherine. But More won't go that far.

The movie is a great portrait of More's integrity, showing the amazing balance of intelligence, honesty, and humility that makes him a man for all seasons. The movie is based on Robert Bolt's stage play but is successfully transformed into a movie with a good variety of locations and a fairly large cast. The actors are all excellent. Paul Scofield rightly won the Oscar for Best Actor as More. Robert Shaw plays Henry VIII with a boyish vitality that shows his appeal to his subjects but also hints at the childish selfishness that is turning him into a monster.

Sure enough, the good folks at A Good Story is Hard to Find Podcast discussed this film on their 88th episode, and it is definitely worth listening to.

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