Director: Fred Zinnemann
Writer: Robert Bolt
Starring: Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, John Hurt
Duration: 120 minutes
BBFC Certification: PG
In the age of The Tudors, Eureka Entertainment’s remastered dual format release of A Man For All Seasons has a lot of competition. Based on the play by Robert Bolt, the 1966 film received rave reviews and picked up six Academy Awards despite its resolutely old-fashioned style. For a modern audience used to fast cutting and steamy scenes the film is more challenging, but its vivid cinematography and dialogue still have the power to intrigue and move.
With its reliance on dialogue and its slow pacing, A Man For All Seasons sometimes feels more like a play than a film. A hilarious example is the opening scene. “Send for Thomas More!” Wolsey (Orson Welles at his Orson Welles-iest) commands a servant, waving him out of the office. In a modern film you’d expect to cut to More waiting outside, or perhaps receiving the message; instead we get a ten minute sequence of the messenger’s long trip to More’s residence, where More (Paul Scofield) receives the summons and - you guessed it - takes us back the way we came. Many of the scenes are just long takes of conversations between two people, and character is built through dialogue rather than action over no non-diegetic music whatsoever.
However, there are several cinematic elements which move away from the play format. First and most obviously is the vivid colour throughout the film, made even more mesmerising by the crisp Blu-ray remaster. Wolsey’s cardinal’s robes are more scarlet than any in real life, the sky is a deep shade of blue, and the leaves outside More’s house shine like jewels, making the last section of the film (depicting More’s imprisonment) literally darker as the colours are reduced to the grey of his cell. This technicolor world becomes a spectacle which you could never create on-stage.
Visual symbolism also contributes to the film. Cromwell, here the villain of the piece (an adjustment for Wolf Hall fans) dresses exclusively in grey, matching the walls of the Tower and contrasting with the natural beauty of More’s preferred surroundings. Richard Rich, played by an almost unrecognisably young John Hurt, is dressed in increasing opulence as his morality falls ever further. And in a key scene near the start, Henry’s first great entrance has the king jumping defiantly into the mud, dragging all his courtiers through the muck in his determination to get his way.
On one hand, the cinematography and theatrical dialogue make this film a spectacle rather than chasing emotional connection. In some sections, I felt that the prioritising of historical accuracy over creating likeable characters wasn’t as effective as other adaptations in making the events seem real. We watch the characters play their parts through a barrier of time, witnessing their rise and fall like a show rather than reality.
However, by the end of the film even Wolf Hall aficionados would find it hard not to feel sympathy for More, a man who remained true to his beliefs in the face of a changing and turbulent world. Henry, a great, golden figure who throws out the rulebook in his quest for personal gain, is not unfamiliar in the 21st century. Eureka’s re-release comes at a good time considering current trends for period drama - and perhaps for other reasons, too.
A Man For All Seasons is released today on DVD and Blu-ray. Special Features include a featurette on the life of Thomas More, the original theatrical trailer, a Masters of Cinema exclusive trailer, and a booklet featuring new writing on the film.