A Man for all Seasons showcases how great British history is. The fact that the King wanting a divorce would cause the end of a friendship and the public trial of a man based on his fundamental beliefs, shows how divisive the religion of a country could be and the ideals that people were willing to die for.
A Man for all Seasons is about Thomas More’s beliefs and his conflict between religion and loyalty to his friend – Henry VIII, the King of England. It is a conflict with high stakes but this isn’t a movie that presents the story with high drama, shouting matches and tense music. This isn’t a thriller but more of an accurate retelling of one of the more famous stories from Tudor England.
This comes with positives and negatives. One of these positives is the very accurate storytelling. It isn’t an over-dramatic movie, trying to squeeze as much interesting elements or fabricate story beats that didn’t actually occur. It means the characters do not fit comfortably into the position of “hero” or “villain” or even in the boxes of “right” and “wrong.” Thomas More is infuriating and stubborn when his salvation seems simple but then his arguments and justifications highlight the unfairness of the charges that his persecutors are putting against him.
It also helps that these characters are being played by acting greats. In 1966, many of these people were in the beginnings of their careers and some people sneak under the radar. For example, John Hurt makes an early appearance as the sly and calculating Rich, while Vanessa Redgrave makes a key, one-scene cameo as a key character from the story. Although not a cameo, Orson Wells is cast brilliantly as Cardinal Wolsey and does enough in his three scenes to make the necessary impact.
The film belongs to three key individuals though – Paul Scofield’s Thomas More, Leo McKern’s Cromwell and to a lesser extent, Robert Shaw as Henry VIII. Scofield perfectly captures the calm stoic determination of More. He is quiet when it matters but will erupt when necessary. The final act, focusing more on the actual trial of More, shows how skilled Scofield is, as he stands firm and will get the audience to rally around him, particularly against the more villainous Cromwell.
It is Leo McKern who is forced to take what feels like a “bad guy” role in the movie. He isn’t a villain and Cromwell had his own issues to deal with, some quite similar to More, but the movie pits the two characters against each other and sides with More prominently. McKern gives a great performance though, particularly in the final trial scene and more so in the quieter scenes where McKern takes on More face to face.
The best character though is Shaw’s Henry VIII. He makes few appearances but perfectly captures the essence of the legendary king. He instils nervous fear, panic throughout his court and entourage but also demonstrates loyalty to his friend and frustration at the situation. That this is done in just three scenes is incredible and also highlights one of the key flaws of the movie.
There is a reason why a lot of Hollywood productions decide to exaggerate or alter the facts – it often makes for a more interesting story. The accuracy can be restrictive and the lack of Shaw’s Henry in the movie is an example of this. Henry VIII wasn’t a huge part of the real story and because of this, Shaw is absent for a film he clearly improves with his presence.
The realism also means that the story can be quite alienating at times. I have the benefit of knowing a little bit about this before hand but the first hour moves slowly and develops over time. Without knowing the tale, you could be forgiven for having little idea of what direction the film is taking you or worse, losing some of the threads completely. Luckily, this is made up for in the final act, which is never less than compelling.
Overall, A Man for all Seasons tells the story of Thomas More accurately and with great performances. You will find yourself rooting for Paul Scofield’s More but infuriated at some of the decisions he makes in the name of his belief. Unfortunately, this accuracy also means that we lose some of the Hollywood creativity, like more of Robert Shaw’s excellent Henry VIII or a slightly more accessible story, particularly for the first half.
Rating – 3.5
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