In memory of the passing of the great actor Paul Scofield I'm taking a look at what was probably his most famous role, that of canonized lawyer (a rarity) Sir Thomas More in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, directed by Fred Zinneman, with a screenplay by Robert Bolt (based on his own play).
I had first seen the film in high school where we watched a rather washed out VHS copy while studying the original play. Even though the tape was poor, the power of the film itself and its cast shone through. Ironically about two days after Scofield's death, I stumbled upon a copy in the discount DVD bin, and bought it.
I did not regret it.
The film is a powerful exploration of duty, morality, faith, power, and freedom. Basically, it's about Sir Thomas More, an attorney and senior government official in the court of King Henry VIII, who is respected throughout Europe for his intelligence, integrity, and honesty in all things.
King Henry VIII has a problem, he married his brother's widow (Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon), and has had no success in producing a son and heir. Henry wants to divorce his wife and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. The problem is that to get a divorce he needs the approval of the Pope. However, the Pope at that time was surrounded by an army led by Catherine's brother the King of Spain, and couldn't give Henry what he wanted.
Torn between his duty to his King, and friend, and to his faith, Sir Thomas More gives the only answer he can: none.
Sir Thomas More cannot in good conscience get involved in the matter, and resigns his high offices, and the prosperous incomes that comes with them. This is seen as treason by the increasingly tyrannical King Henry and his cadre of sycophantic courtiers. This leads to tragedy for More, and for the country in general.
This film is one of those moments of perfect synergy when screenplay, director, and cast mesh to create a film of great intelligence and emotional power. The cast is uniformly excellent, from the young John Hurt, looking like the 5th Beatle, Leo McKern, Susannah York, Wendy Hiller, and Robert Shaw as the borderline bipolar Henry VIII, swerving madly between raucous joy, and tyrannical rage. But the real standout performance belongs to Scofield.
Scofield had already won awards and praise for his work in the original play, is a study in intelligence, and understated emotion. I have no idea what Scofield's personal beliefs were, but you do not doubt for a second that he believes everything Thomas More says, and has an intelligent and rational argument in his mind to back each word up.
Now that's acting.
Visually, Zinneman keeps things subtle, from the use of simple montages to establish location, and colour to denote character. Thomas More dresses in black and white, the symbols of ethical debate, King Henry is clad in luxuriant gold, denoting power, wealth, and ultimately corruption, the high clergy and judges dress in blood red, to symbolize their power, both spiritual and political, and Henry's foppish courtiers dress in a kaleidoscope of candy colours, telling you in an instant that they are fundamentally frivolous with no concerns beyond meeting their immediate wants.
The screenplay by Bolt, is excellent. Henry isn't just motivated by lust for Anne Boleyn, but needs a male heir to avoid another brutal dynastic civil-war. Thomas More's faith and reason are repelled by Henry's split from the Church and his growing tyranny, but since he is also Henry's friend and loyal citizen, he knows that there are no easy answers.
My last review was of a film I considered a cinematic dessert, A Man For All Seasons, is a full meal, and a must own for any serious film fan.
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