Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

The main thing I learned from A Man for All Seasons is that a slew of very talented, very interesting people made a film about a talented, interesting person who I find admirable, and yet whose conscience dictated loyalty to something most of us would not agree with—the corrupt Catholic church which at the time faced reforms both inside and out. This actually does not lessen the impact of the script, written by Robert Bolt, which (like Lawrence of Arabia) uses one man's struggle to illuminate the broader themes Bolt was interested in exploring. Like Lawrence, Thomas More is streamlined even if he remains complex, those facts which do not support Bolt's thesis (More as the ultimate man of conscience) stripped from the action. Like Lawrence, he is one man caught in Great Events of History, who rises to the challenge though not without personal cost. (The use (or misuse) of historical figures for a writer's personal aims should probably be addressed elsewhere; for me, it often depends on the particular use and the skill with which it's been accomplished.)

Also like Lawrence..., a fantastic performance is the centerpiece of the film. Paul Scofield, of impeccable reputation perhaps because of his short list of credits, seems born to play this role. He is steady, likable without being overtly attractive, and possessed of an amazing voice. He embodies Bolt's idea of More perfectly, appearing eternally upright and benevolent as the only man to oppose Henry VIII's breaking an entire country away from the Pope on a whim. One cannot imagine this More condemning heretical Lutherans to the stake, but that's not the point; Bolt's themes are anti-authoritarian and pro-conscience, regardless of whether he believed in More's cause. Indeed in the film, More's response to anti-Catholic sentiments in his prospective son-in-law is to forbid him to marry, but not from seeing, his daughter, until he gets his mind right and becomes merely an anti-corruption Catholic.

Bolt's script is witty and to the point. One thing I admire about Bolt's screenplays is how little fat there is in them, though they rarely feel stagy. The supporting players all do a fine job as well, especially Robert Shaw's Henry, who is endearingly ridiculous as the moody, virile, and self-satisfied king. Orson Welles has a cameo as Cardinal Wolsey, looking corrupt and bloated by power; John Hurt appears as the soon-corrupted Richard Rich, and Wendy Hiller as the steadfast Alice More. My major complaint is about the photography itself; for whatever reason, many scenes end with a fade that seems to come too hard on the heels of the last line and draws attention to itself. Otherwise it is uninspired, and the film is of primary interest for its script and acting, both of which are sufficient cause for seeing it. One should, however, be prepared to listen a great deal. With Scofield speaking, I myself did not find that a tall order in the least.

1 comment:

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