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A Man for All Seasons
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Adaptation of Robert Bolt's play about Sir Thomas More, a Catholic statesman in England who rebelled against Henry VIII's self-proclaimed status as the head of the Church of England and paid for his religious beliefs by having his head exhibited on London Bridge.
Robert Bolt's successful play was not considered a hot commercial property by Columbia Pictures--a period piece about a moral issue without a star, without even a love story. Perhaps that's why Columbia left director Fred Zinnemann alone to make A Man for All Seasons, as long as he stuck to a relatively small budget. The results took everyone by surprise, as the talky morality play became a box-office hit and collected the top Oscars for 1966. At the play's heart is the standoff between King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw, in young lion form) and Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield, in an Oscar-winning performance). Henry wants More's official approval of divorce, but More's strict ethical and religious code will not let him waffle. More's rectitude is a source of exasperation to Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles in a cameo), who chides, "If you could just see facts flat on without that horrible moral squint." Zinnemann's approach is all simplicity, and indeed the somewhat prosaic staging doesn't create a great deal of cinematic excitement. But the language is worth savoring, and the ethical politics are debated with all the calm and majesty of an absorbing chess game. --Robert Horton
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Top customer reviews
Leo McKern gives an Oscar performance, but he couldn't win because he plays a villain.
The refrain, "This isn't Spain, this is England!" intended to justify the wrongdoing, actually has a sinister irony, since what is going on at the court of Henry the 8th is no different from the cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition.
The voice under the end credits tell us what we need to hear after the tragedy: "Cromwell was headed five years later for high treason, the Archbishop was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been beheaded, but the King died of syphilis the night before."
Many think this the best film of all time. If it isn't, it's certainly close.
As such I was first taken by the performances of the villains. Orson Wells as the dying, world wise and world weary Cardinal Wolsey instantly establishes himself as a man who has compromised everything and is too tired to fake otherwise. Camera angles and lighting contribute in making him appear as reptilian and dangerous. This camera angle for his death scene is perhaps too over done, but is the only such failure, if failure it be.
Leo McKern as Cromwell, an over reaching, overly confident "administrator" is clearly Moore's inferior in everything except his willingness to do what it takes to gain personal power or preference. McKern handles the exercise of bureaucratic power as naturally as he will later mock that power as Rumpole of the Bailey.
Perhaps the weakest performance is that of Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII. Between the writing and the directing, the King is played as a distracted artist, what we would now call a victim of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, rather than an otherwise respected King with a very real awareness of the violence his country had suffered during the War of the Roses. Hence is was for him a matter of national priority to insure his dynastic line.
Against these forces we have a loyal Lady Alice Moore ably played by Wendy Hiller, a no-nonsense, love her man even as you challenge him wife. A young Susannah York plays the well-educated and clever daughter, Margret.
There are a few others, but the point is that the movie is Thomas Moore versus all comers.
Paul Scofield at once looks the part and plays his man. The movie pivots around this portrayal and Scofield delivers. Moore is a lawyer. His defense is a lawyer's defense. He will make no public statement, not even to his wife on the subject of his king's decision to become head of the Church of England and Henry's decision to divorce his wife in favor of Ann Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave, only just barely present but played as a sensual if somewhat surprised mistress turned Queen).
It is the fate of Sir Thomas to be depend on a technicality of the law, before a court that has been engineered to ignore it. There is no surprise ending. You see the ending before you see the movie. Your motive for seeing the movie is not to learn what is going to happen, but to judge for yourself the integrity of the man versus the cruelty of the system. This brings us to the most deliberate weakness of the movie. Why does the King choose to continue his vendetta against this man? If you listen carefully to the features added to the movie, you will have an idea. If you only watch the movie the need to go after Sir Thomas even after years (over 10) have passed in never discussed.
Pay attention to the directing and camera work. Every return to Moore's estate is a return to the light. Every arrival or departure from London is in the dark. King Henry is afforded light, but he is not portrayed as a force or a player. Things are done in his name, but he is seen as too light to carry any serious contribution to the movie. Cromwell, Wolsey, the Knighted Sir Richard Rich are creatures of the dark. The Duke of Norfolk, being a man who comprehends little and represents less , moves between light and dark while carrying his own personal confusions.
Granting the several weaknesses of A Man for all Season -most are deliberate, being tied to the purposes of the author and the time limits of the media - this is a 5 star performance. I say performance rather than movie because it is the acting, along with costuming and sets and camera work that make this a 5 star thinking person's movie.
Most recent customer reviews
The movie won the Best Picture Oscar, and that was back before the studio...Read more