15 December 2005 | alynsrumbold
"This silence of his is bellowing...."
One of the greatest cinematic studies of the nature of personal integrity, I sometimes think that this film is in danger of being forgotten -- and it shouldn't be. One wonders at the degree of corruption in More's time that he should have been so highly regarded for his honesty -- and how he might have been regarded today.
What Robert Bolt and Fred Zinnemann had wrought is absolutely brought to glorious life by the incomparable characterization of Sir Thomas More by the chronically underrated Paul Scofield. Bringing superb support to the role are Nigel Davenport as More's close friend Norfolk, who is caught between the rock of his respect and concern for More and the hard place of his duty to (and fear of) Henry VIII; Leo McKern as the jovially sinister Thomas Cromwell, whose verbal jousts with More are virtual poetry from Bolt's pen; John Hurt as More's fair-weather friend Richard Rich; Dame Wendy Hiller as More's devoted but frustrated and misunderstanding wife; and the elegant Susannah York as his equally devoted and strong-minded daughter. Two stand-out performances in relatively small but vital roles: Orson Welles, magnetic as the shrewdly pragmatic Cardinal Wolsey; and Robert Shaw, whose energetic portrayal of a young Henry VIII (before his corpulent days!) dominates the screen the two times he's on it.
As with "The Lion in Winter," the remarkable scriptwriting is the driving force behind the story, but Scofield's dignified, restrained, but at the same time quietly forceful delivery are what give the writing its power. The great quotes of the film ("Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the entire world...but for Wales?" "When you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?" etc.) are conveyed with either enormous gravity or poignancy by nothing more than the tone of Scofield's voice.
I think that the dilemma at the heart of the tale and how men of power came to grips with it is artfully summed up in the dying words of Wolsey and, of course, More. Wolsey regrets he did not serve God as well as he served his king. More, on the other hand, dies as "His majesty's good servant...but God's first." Whether criticized or praised as a morality play, it's wonderful to at least HAVE an uncompromising morality play to watch from time to time -- especially one so well crafted.