Monday, 3 February 2014

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

This movie was sitting on my wishlist for a while. Then it came up in our superhero rpg campaign, and I figured that meant I really ought to buy it.

There have been two film adaptations of Robert Bolt's play. This is the earlier (and I suspect better) of the two, with Paul Scofield - who played the role in the original stage production - appearing as Sir Thomas More.

Sir Thomas is an important man in Henry VIII's England. A personal friend of the King, he's also one of the lead candidates for the role of Chancellor when the incumbent dies. When that comes to pass, he does indeed get the role ... and that's when everything starts going wrong.

Henry, you see, wants a divorce, and the Pope won't give it to him. So the King passes a law proclaiming himself head of the church in England, so he can grant himself a divorce. As a devout Catholic, Sir Thomas does not recognise this as a valid law ('If the world is round, and the King passes a law that it is flat, would it be so?'). He resigns, and refuses to swear an oath confirming the King's command over the church. His conscience forbids him from doing so. On the other hand, he does not speak openly against it, hoping that by his silence he will protect himself and his family. The ever-escalating efforts of the King and his agents to force him to swear the oath make up the latter part of the film.

This is a sumptuous film, with excellent performances from the key players. It's a bit too white-washed in its depiction of Thomas More for my taste, though. His refusal to swear the oath, and the price he paid for that decision, are historical fact. He was indeed a man who stood by his convictions. But one way in which he stood by those convictions - a way the film does not acknowledge - was in ordering the execution of six Protestants during his time as Chancellor. Had the film shown the less admirable aspects of his convictions, I would have appreciated it. As is, it feels like Bolt took the easy way out in his characterisation, and to me that robs the film a bit.

Still, if you want to see clever dialogue, beautifully delivered, this is a fine bit of movie making.

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