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A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Leo McKern, John Hurt, Susannah York, Wendy Hiller, Orson Welles
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 Mono, French 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese
Video: Color, anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen
Studio: Sony Pictures
Features: "The Life of Saint Thomas More" featurette, trailers
Length: 120 minutes
Release Date: February 20, 2007

"More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning.  I know not his fellow.  For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability?  And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity.  A man for all seasons."

            - Robert Whittinton

Film ****

Whatever indignations have relegated a film of such caliber as A Man for All Seasons to relative anonymity, who can definitively say?  Generally disregarded among its peers of contemporary Best Picture Oscar recipients, A Man for All Seasons suffers in the public's eye for want of violence, sex, or action.  Yet given this period drama's languid pace and cast of then-virtual unknowns, the general viewing public may be forgiven its token indifference.  After all, how much entertainment value may be derived from a cinematic pulpit expounding upon the various merits of religious morality, political responsibility, and social conscience?

This film may fail to appeal to a typically mainstream cinema audience, but even so, A Man for All Seasons remains a steadfast advocate of higher principles, an insightful and faithful adaptation of the complex stage play by Robert Bolt, and to the last, a reverent tribute to its namesake, Sir Thomas More - devout Catholic, humanist poet, a self-appointed purveyor of truth, the King's devoted servant but God's foremost.

Among literary enthusiasts, Sir Thomas More is noteworthy as author of Utopia, a classic of English literature hypothesizing the feasibility of a perfect society.  But within the political arena, More is better remembered as a man of unwavering moral virtue, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs; if his contemporaries should have scorned him for his sense of propriety, history has made great reparations since to the legacy of this essentially decent man.

The genesis of More's defining moment, as chronicled in A Man for All Seasons, began with King Henry VIII's desire to wed his mistress Anne Boleyn.  The English monarch's then-queen, Catherine of Aragon, widow to the king's own brother Arthur, then wife to Henry through a special dispensation from Pope Julius II, had proven barren in her attempts to bear the king a son.  The king, desiring a male heir to continue the Tudor line, eventually became enamored with one of the Queen's own maidens, Anne Boleyn, and petitioned Cardinal Wosley, the Lord Chancellor, to request from the new Pope an annulment of his marriage.

With Wosley's untimely death, the burden of this onerous task was transferred to More, by appointment the new Roman Catholic Chancellor to King Henry VIII.  As an old friend to the king, More was expected as a matter of mere formality to acquiesce to the king's wishes in this delicate matter.  However, More, a highly moral and religious man, could not support such a divorce or annulment, and his subsequent failure to appear at Anne Boleyn's coronation did little to endear him to the king's continual good graces.

Henry VIII's solution to his dilemma of lineage was to embrace the Protestant contention that the Pope was merely a Bishop of Rome who held no true authority over the Christian Church as a whole.  Under this premise, the King could then declare himself head of the Church of England, thereby empowering the monarchy, by which Henry meant himself, with the right to grant the desired divorce.

For More, Henry VIII's actions seemed a misdirection of the populous to achieve the urgings of King's own animus.  Furthermore, More did not believe that a temporal man could be head of the spirituality.  This difference of opinions eventually led More to resign his commission as Lord Chancellor, and when approached about the matter of succession, to simply maintain his silence as a form of passive protest.

While such bold challenges to Henry VIII's authority surely vexed the king, ultimately, it was More's refusal to endorse the Act of Succession regarding Anne Boleyn's legal status as Queen of England that sealed his fate.  Failure by any citizen to support this Act was considered high treason, and as More neither endorsed it nor gave reason for his dissent, he received the standard justice dispensed to all traitors and those guilty of treason - execution.

A Man for All Seasons offers a faithful re-enactment of these fateful events, including More's downfall and trial.  While the film necessarily condenses the historic timeline for dramatic purposes and occasionally reveals the narrative seams needed to adapt the stage play to the screen, A Man for All Seasons is ultimately a triumph, thanks to stellar performances all around from its cast.  At the forefront is Paul Scofield as the devout More in an incredible, Oscar-winning performance.  Scofield is matched by Robert Shaw in an unforgettable command performance as the boisterous young Henry VIII.  Both actors do not simply portray their respective historical counterparts as completely inhabit the very essence of their characters, allowing audiences to empathize with the deep hurt and conflicting motivations for both men.

That Thomas More and Henry VIII had once been on friendly terms only intensifies the sense of betrayal felt by each man through the consequences of the other's actions and lack of compromise.  Scofield's More is a good man whose mortal flaw is an inability to separate personal pride from the standards of his own high principles.  Shaw's Henry VIII is, in a fashion, a good man as well who feels no pleasure in condemning his own friend yet must consider his decisions carefully in universal terms of state and country, not merely provincial friendship.  If More is a tragic character whose fate is sealed when he defies his king, then Henry VIII is a tragic character as well, caught within the machineries of politics and the necessity of preserving the stability of the crown.

A Man for All Seasons is a highly thought-provoking film that may not offer the usual carefree Hollywood frivolities or happy endings, but it does directly challenge audiences to consider the delicate balance between friendship and loyalty versus duty.  As citizens, should we support the state without question or should we follow our individual personal codes of honor?  It is a moral dilemma that remains as contemporary now as in the days of Sir Thomas More.

Video ***

The image quality to A Man for All Seasons possesses a somewhat grainy texture but is otherwise acceptable, given the film's relative age.  The colors are rich, and there is a minimal amount of age-related defects or speckles.  The film is presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen format.

Audio ***

A Man for All Seasons is a purely dialogue-driven film with only incidental period music.  The audio quality is not particularly great but is adequate for this film.

Features *

"The Life of Saint Thomas More" (18 min.) presents a biography of the controversial Englishman through historical writings, period artwork, and film clips from A Man for All Seasons.  Various historical scholars are also on hand to offer their interpretations of the ramifications of More's personal beliefs for church and state in England.  This generally informative and well-crafted featurette should appeal to history buffs and fans of the History Channel.  Anyone unfamiliar with the historical basis for A Man for All Seasons may do well to preview portions of this featurette prior to watching the actual film itself.

Also on this disc are trailers for Sense and Sensibility and Little Women.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Thomas More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonized in 1935.

Summary:

A Man for All Seasons is a truly exceptional dramatization of one man's internal struggle between moral conscience and public duty.

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