Way back when I was studying history, A Man for All Seasons would have been of some use. Surely the relationship between King Henry VIII and at the time one of his closest advisors, Lord Chancellor Thomas More, would be more interesting if it were directed by the man that brought us The Day of the Jackal and High Noon. Yes, with a plot by Robert Bolt of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago acclaim comes a piece from director Fred Zinnemann. He brings with him a cast of true greats, with Orson Welles and John Hurt featuring in supporting performances to the powerhouse performances of Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw.
These supporting performances, Welles in particular, steal the scenes they are given. Welles’ role as Cardinal Wolsey is a fleeting piece that directs More towards an ultimate goal. “Ah, a plotter. Alright then, we’ll plot.” Wolsey sighs, and it is here that Welles comes into his own. His energy since the days of work on Citizen Kane have changed rapidly with his change to both stature and style. A Man for All Seasons offers up a make-up clad veteran who poses the tough, necessary questions for our protagonist to consider. Wolsey is a man tasked with pleasing the King of England, but it is difficult to do so when the relationship between church and state, at this time, is so troubled. All because Henry wants a son, something he simply cannot have, and something Wolsey cannot offer him.
Tensions begin to boil, and those who know their history will be slightly ahead of A Man for All Seasons. The birth of the Church of England and the tattered relationship of those following the Catholic faith are shown, and the history is all there. It is not particularly interesting, and it lingers too often on its duller moments. For every passionate Welles performance, there are twice the amount of hefty, monotonous scenes of men talking their way through a drama that is far more interesting to read of than to watch. A Man for All Seasons is filled with straightforward dialogue, and with no hook to reel in an audience not deeply interested and infatuated with history. Even for those, like me, who are interested, there is little here that would suggest A Man for All Seasons is a must-watch piece.
Therein lies the problem, though. Zinnemann is neither flashy nor engaging with his direction. He is inspired by fact but does not add any extra layer to this. He presents the story with good intentions, earnest in their attachment to history, but its message does not come together as well as it should. A piece that suggests betraying the morals and religious leanings to prop up a villainous ruler is wrong. Rightly so, most would argue that to be true, but what can A Man for All Seasons offer that has not been said before? Nothing much, as evidenced by a forgetful screenplay that, at the very least, has some exceptionally dedicated performers.
A Man for All Seasons has the costumes but not the drama, the wordplay but not the surroundings. The Tudor era is a fascinating timeframe and is rich with bloody murder, dictatorial kings and villainous, scheming revolutionaries. A Man for All Seasons has some of that, but it dances around these interesting pockets with a demanding script and a beautiful use of colour. These moments fade into the background, overwhelmed by the mired relationship Thomas More and Henry VIII have. Even then, the real focus is on that of More and his inner conflict, rather than that of the history-making terror of a man that believed himself to be above and better than God. It presents a man who would not betray his faith and paid the ultimate price for it. There is no flowery or cautious way of putting it, the film is dull and its inspiration is stifled.