14 July 2004 | NoArrow
Fantastically acted, beautifully shot
`A Man For All Seasons', much like the film `Becket', is about a man standing up to his king, with tragic results. In this film the man is Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) a well-liked and well-respected lawyer and the king is Henry VIII (Robert Shaw). Henry VIII wants to divorce his wife and marry another, something illegal by the courts of England. But since he is the king and he is fond of executions, practically no one objects, except More, who refuses to believe that anyone is above the law, even his king.
It's not that More objects, rather that he doesn't go along with it. He never says he's against it because that way he could be charged with treason but he doesn't sign the new law passed in favor of the king. He could get away with this, of course, but Henry VIII stubbornly refuses to have any opposition, and the rest of the movie is spent on characters trying to persuade More to abide, for this reason or that. There is also a subplot about Richard Rich (a young John Hurt) and Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) plotting to frame More to quiet him.
That is what I got from the plot, at least. I could be wrong. It was hard to follow, this film, because of the fast fury of dialogue in each scene, never relenting for the audience to understand. This fast approach to the subject matter wasn't too tedious, but it did prompt me to rewind a few times to hear things over.
That, I am glad to say, is the movie's only flaw. Everything else is wonderful. The acting was great. Scofield creates a sense of pride, duty, confidence and principle with his character that gives him a high, strong presence whenever he's onscreen. His character is complex and in a way simple. Simple: he's refusing to relent not because he believes strongly on the issues of marriage and divorce, but because he believes strongly that no one, not even the king, is above the law. Complex: his strength and duty begins to become self-destructive when he is jailed, his family is made poor and unhappy and he loses respect from most around him, all the while still refusing to conform. An Oscar well deserved.
The rest of the cast rounds out nicely. We have Orson Welles in a small role as the gruff Cardinal Wolsey, Leo McKern using scorn as his technique as Cromwell, Hurt playing a sad role that goes from nice and likable to selfish and nasty, and much others. Ones that stood out for me were Robert Shaw and Wendy Hiller, both Oscar nominated. Shaw is loud, rude, stupid, and in some way likable as the king, it's not his best performance but it is an entertaining one. Hiller, playing More's wife, creates a character whose pride and strength diminishes when her husband is punished, revealing what we least expected: love.
Also, the film is beautifully shot. Its scenery is nice, but how the camera captures it is better. The set direction and costumes are also very impressive, making the film as much a wonder to look at, as it is to watch. And notice how as the movie progresses and More's situation becomes more and more hopeless the tones become muddier; there are more grays and browns than the reds and oranges from early on.
The film won the 1966 Academy Award for Best Picture. I liked `The Sand Pebbles' a little more, but it was still a deserved win in my book. A great picture, made better by Scofield's powerful performance, 8/10.