Sunday, 3 January 2016

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

"You lay traps for me!"

"No. I show you the times."

This is, obviously, an excellent film even if, like myself, you're somewhat sick of the excess of Henry VIII; can't historical dramas show a bit more interest in other periods. But we should pause and remember that this film is somewhat biased; there's a reason why it's one of the Vatican's official favourites. This is, quite literally, a hagiography. And, while I will leave the sectarian tiresomeness to those whom believe in God, I have to point out that Sir Thomas More himself tortured (personally!) and burned people at the stake because their religious beliefs did not accord with him. This makes his death seem rather less unjust; indeed, he died rather less painfully than most of his victims. More was no saint, whatever Pope Pius XI may have said.

But what of the film? Well, it's superb. To start with, look at the cast. Standing out is an excellent (and very young) John Hurt as the slimy and ambitious Richard Rich. Susannah York is excellent as Meg. Orson Welles, no less, plays Wolsey. But best of all is Paul Scofield himself, whose extraordinarily subtle and dignified More may be the highlight of his distinguished screen career.

But the script is the real star. The theme is of the rule of law, and how it protects us from both arbitrary tyranny and Hobbesian chaos. More's undoing, of course, comes because Henry, Cromwell and Rich are not as unscrupulous as he is, and will happily cut corners. The contrast is between More and Rich; More is willing to die rather than lie before God on an oath, while Tich casually perjured himself- and sacrifices More's life- for the sake of a petty little promotion.

More is forever cautioning people to avoid condemning themselves through what they say; careless talk at Henry's court cost lies. More believes that the age old religious tradition of dissembling will save him, but it does not. We proceed inexorably to his inexorable death, his world slowly narrowing; I love the shot of seasons and time passing as seem through More's tiny cell window. The end finally comes, the axe falls... and fade to black. Superb.

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