Wednesday, February 19, 2014

He's Effortlessly the Same All Year

Being a religious martyr can be rather wearying at times it seems. Paul Scofield plays Sir Thomas More--Saint Thomas More to Roman Catholics--in the 1966 version of A Man for All Seasons as a fellow glumly bearing the heresy of his liege with prudent silence. For the most part this is a morally very simple film, if strikingly old fashioned. Entertaining but not amazing.

Fred Zinnemann directed the film--Zinnemann also directed the classic Western High Noon starring Gary Cooper as a small town sheriff who suddenly finds he has to face a gang of thugs alone because everyone else in town is too much of a coward. A Man for All Seasons is not so dissimilar. In this case, More is the only figure in Henry VIII's court who won't support the annulment of the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The movie does a decent job of making this seem like a really heroic thing to do. It's not defending a small western town from death and mayhem but More has a reputation for fairness among the people and Scofield plays him as absolutely certain about what's right when everyone else around him is conflicted and scheming.

For this reason, Orson Welles crushes the whole rest of the movie with just one scene as Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey fears the civil war that may result in the absence of a male heir--this wasn't long after The Wars of the Roses, after all--but, as a man of the church, the idea of further violating orthodoxy regarding marriage bothers his conscience. Unlike anyone else in the movie, Wolsey has internal conflict and all the nuance of it comes through in Welles' performance, making Scofield as More seem feeble-minded in comparison.

The rest of the movie is mostly court intrigue junk food as Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) negotiates backroom politics to have More executed and More continually outmanoeuvres. Scofield has some nice lines about law:

WILLIAM ROPER: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

THOMAS MORE: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

WILLIAM ROPER: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

THOMAS MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Wendy Hiller gives a nice performance in the relatively small role as Alice More, wife of Thomas. Robert Shaw chews scenery as Henry VIII and a very, very young John Hurt plays Richard Rich.

This young face has never seen a Dalek much less thought of killing them all.

He's almost conflicted, too, wanting to be employed by More because he respects him but wanting the glory of a prominent court position more. Hurt suggests a lot in his few scenes. With more of him and Welles this might have been a very interesting movie.

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