Top positive review
119 people found this helpful
Not quite Utopia
on 3 February 2005
Films such as this are rare today; 'A Man for All Seasons' turns not on action sequences of battles past or present, nor on love affairs, or indeed political issues that have a burning relevance for today. It is not a comedy, nor a tragedy in the classic sense. In a word, it would seem to have little to recommend it -- however, it is one of the best film ever produced. Turning largely on the issue of personal integrity and the conflict of competing calls to faithfulness, this is a drama of the interior struggle of Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, writ large across the political/religious landscape of Henry VIII's England.
The whole tone of the film is excellent. From the opening scenes of couriers dashing from Wolsey to More, backdrops of pre-Renaissance England fill the screen, from the magnificent but appropriate un-ornate manor houses and parliamentary scenes (the set of Westminster Hall, a building in which I once worked) to the costuming and music, period in style and instrumentation. The director Fred Zimmermann resisted the urge to provide orchestral music as a background; indeed, through much of the film, there is no music at all, as the drama itself carries the weight of the narrative and atmosphere. The cinematographer, Ted Moore, as well as the director received Academy Awards for their work.
This is an actor's film, the force of the drama being driven by their performances. Exceptional acting by John Hurt, Leo McKern, Nigel Davenport and Robert Shaw enhance lead actor Paul Scofield's Oscar-winning portrayal. Scofield presents the intellectual More as a character of supreme integrity (following Bolt's play perfectly), an integrity hard to maintain in the shifting sands of Henry VIII's drive to break with Rome to secure a divorce. More, as chancellor of England after Wolsey (portrayed in a slightly-more-than-cameo appearance by an effective but declining Orson Welles), was charged with maintaining both peace with the King and his faithfulness to the church, of which he was an acknowledged intellectual leader throughout Europe. In the end, the church won out -- as More said at his execution, 'I remain the King's good subject, but God's first.'
Hurt and McKern portray Richard Rich and Thomas Cromwell, schemers and social climbers of which royal courts are always full. Nigel Davenport as the friend who becomes an enemy, himself turned by the political tides, is also effective, but the best role beyond Scofield's is that Robert Shaw, who portrays the 'lion of England', Henry VIII, capricious and volatile, far too taken with his own sense of purpose and without many courageous enough to stand against him.
The roles of More's wife Alice (Wendy Hiller) and daughter Meg (Susannah York) are admirably played. Alice as the illiterate yet intelligent wife of More is concerned for the family's well-being; Meg as the educated daughter (More's experimental school practiced, generations ahead of its time, gender equality in education) almost steals the scene from Shaw at one point. Hiller's performance as More's companion up to the scene in the Tower is strongly portrayed, and she does not lose her character in the face of so many other powerful figures.
Rare in film-making today, the full force of the plot develops upon the device of Qui tacet consentit - silence implies consent. More relied on the legal idea that, so long as he did not speak out against the king, his silence implied consent and he was safe. However, as Cromwell (correctly) argued, More's silence was not meaningless, nor was it taken as consent by any who knew him. On this one point, More's integrity falters, for he was intelligent enough to know that the truth was different from the legal fiction; however, this was also the position he maintained regarding Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn.
This is not a feel-good movie; indeed, the final narration makes one wonder rather at the idea of justice in the world. Yet it is a meaningful and stunning film, and one deserving of viewing by all.