A Man for All Seasons still packs an emotional punch in watching a wise and decent man, Sir Thomas More (Charlton Heston) be victimized by a rotten system of pliable royal sycophants, an egomaniacal king (Martin Chaimberlain as Henry VIII) wanting a divorce and become ‘supreme head’ of the Church of England, a jackal adversary (Benjamin Whitrow playing Thomas Cromwell), and More himself, who refuses to abandon his principles and loses his head in the process.
The beauty in Bolt’s writing goes beyond his prosaic evocation of Shakespearean England; it’s the care in which none of the major characters are presented as black & white archetypes, and no one’s wholly evil. Cromwell, for example, respects and grudgingly admires More’s wit, his profound wisdom, and ability to thwart his efforts avoid the verbal traps that would quickly convict More, and allow Cromwell to get on with more pleasing matters.
Heston’s third final directorial effort is notable for presenting Robert Bolt’s play in more complete form, restoring The Common Man character (played by The Three Musketeers’ Roy Kinnear, in one of his last roles) and a few scenes with the Spanish Ambassador Chapuys (Nicholas Amer) that were excised from the adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1966 feature film directed by Fred Zinnemann, and starring Paul Scofield, who reprised the role of More from the original stage production.
Richard Rich (Jonathan Hackett), the opportunist shit whom More and the Duke of Norfolk (Richard Johnson) shun for employment, exerts payback by conniving his way into Cromwell’s prosecution team, but no one ever believes Rich possesses any genuine talent; he’s useful to Cromwell due to a key piece of evidence that kick-starts the case and the pejorative testimony that helps convict More, but Rich is repeatedly corrected for sloppiness and bad form by porfessional and social peers. Even so, as rotten as Rich may be, one suspects he remains loyal as long as his needs are met.
More is the tragic hero, and it becomes achingly painful watching a principled good man lose stature, the king's support, and friends, such as the Duke of Norfolk, from whom More disassociates to protect Norfolk and his heirs from disgrace. Even when thrown into jail, More stubbornly remains silent on his opinion of Henry VIII’s decision to become bigwig of the Church of England, and yet there are moments when he’s given an out by his prosecutors; each of More's refusals leads to further cruelties, and it’s anguishing to watch his victimization play out during the film's 2.5 hour running time.
The beauty of Bolt’s writing is the evocation of the era – its wit, wisdom, and circuitously designed insults and veiled threats – plus the timelessness of a legal argument being at the core of the drama; to modern audiences Man is basically a court case, and the language and maneuvering are thoroughly gripping because there’s nothing more horrifying that watching an innocent man trashed and convicted by the misdeeds and social nonsense of others.
It takes a little while to acclimatize to Heston’s interpretation of More – Scofield was brilliant in the film version – but he suits the character, and adds extra dimension to a genial man with an almost unwavering sense of hope, which is why his eventual incarceration and conviction are so potent to watch.
As More’s wife, Vanessa Redgrave is ill-cast, taking the character of an illiterate, opinionated but devoted wife into a quivering, shrill caricature akin to an Una O’Connor (The Invisible Man) impersonation. The rest of the cast is uniformly strong – Johnson does his usual benevolent curmudgeon impersonation, and John Gielgud delivers a familiar rendering of a mannered, irritated nobleman under the red habit of Cardinal Wolsey – and the use of lush exteriors and period sets are uniformly excellent.
A few flaws do stand out: the harsh interior lighting evokes a stage setting, and there are a few glaring continuity errors: two of the actors sport contemporary hairstyles, and the glasses Kinnear dons in one of his audience addressals are more 1988 than sixteenth century. Julia Downes’ score (her sole feature film credit) is a little schizophrenic at times, flipping between period instrumentation and synth underscore, but it manages to support the drama, and it is amusing to hear thematic material based on Tudor music written by Henry VIII.
Warner Home Video’s good transfer comes from an okay print that’s typical of many seventies and eighties video masters: the colours aren't particularly vibrant, and there are moments of strong contrast when the lighting is too bright (such as the interiors of More’s home). The mono sound mix is well-balanced but very quiet, mandating a major volume boost on the amplifier.
Perhaps due to space issues, there are no extras; it would’ve been nice to hear Fraser Heston’s recollections of the production, as done in prior WHV editions of his father’s films, or have some text menus providing some production and broadcast minutia. Being an early production for Ted Turner’s TNT station, there are fadeouts to accommodate ad breaks, but they don’t distract or jumble the narrative.
Both Johnson and Gielgud had previously co-starred with Heston in the flawed 1970 production of Julius Caesar [M], whereas Redgrave had an unbilled role in the original 1966 Man (which makes it puzzling as to why she opted for such a theatrical performance style). Heston’s other directorial efforts are the superb Antony and Cleopatra [M] (1972), and the tight B-movie Mother Lode [M] (1982). His other production for TNT is Treasure Island [M] (1990), directed by Fraser Heston, and co-starring Johnson and Nicholas Amer.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan