Monday, July 16, 2012

Short Take: A Man for All Seasons

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Paul Scofield is a charming, urbane presence as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, director Fred Zinnemann’s film version of the Robert Bolt play. (Bolt is credited with the script.) Scofield is the only good reason to see the picture, which deals with the stand-off between More and England’s King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) over Henry’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. Bolt’s treatment over-simplifies the conflict. It doesn’t begin to do justice to the Church (and More)’s view of the threat posed by Henry’s actions and the concurrent rise of Protestantism. Additionally, the portrayal of More is far too idealized to be satisfactory. His hostility towards the Reformation went far beyond the disdain and occasional harsh words the film shows. Half a dozen Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy during his short tenure as Lord Chancellor. It’s also difficult to reconcile his stubborn, often priggish behavior with the characterization of him as a paragon of temperament. The picture is ultimately just a banal story of a principled man who gets railroaded for being uncooperative. As director, Fred Zinnemann certainly didn’t appear to be inspired. The film is well paced, but the staging and camerawork rarely rise above the perfunctory. And apart from Scofield, Zinnemann wasn’t able to get much out of what would seem a dream cast. Leo McKern, Wendy Hiller, John Hurt, Susannah York, and Orson Welles barely make an impression. Robert Shaw is characteristically imposing as Henry VIII, but he’s unable to find a rhythm in his scenes. The performance can't reconcile the king’s bravado and volatility. Mostly, one watches him in dread that he’s going to start yelling again. The picture’s not the worst example of historical-drama award bait, but that’s probably the most that can be said for it. The cinematography is by Ted Moore. The music by Georges Delerue. Vanessa Redgrave has a wordless cameo as Anne Boleyn.

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