My top pick this week is surely one of the least discussed Best Picture winners ever. Released in 1966, "A Man for All Seasons" tells the true story of Sir Thomas More, who stood up to the English monarch (King Henry VIII) during a time of great corruption in the seats of power. Starring Paul Scofield as More, the film was adapted by Robert Bolt (from his own play) and directed by Fred Zinnemann. Their influences are clearly evident here, yielding a highly respectable but under-stimulating period drama.
"A Man for All Seasons" is set in the 16th century during a pivotal moment in English history. The sitting monarch King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) is dissatisfied with his wife Catherine, who is unable to bear him a male heir. Frustrated, he turns to the younger beauty Anne Boleyn, with intentions to begin a new fruitful marriage. There's one catch however - divorce isn't allowed by the Catholic Church, the most powerful authority at the time. As men with power are wont to do however, he manages to pull a few strings, getting most of his Privy Council to agree with his appeal to annul his marriage. The exception however is the staunchly devout Sir Thomas More, who refuses to sign the letter requesting the Pope's permission to annul and the subsequent declaration of King Henry as the head of the newly established Church of England. Of course, this refusal is not taken kindly, resulting in a sequence of events that lead up to a trial for high treason. Through the storm however, More sticks firmly to his beliefs, proving himself worthy of the moniker that gives the film its name.
Musicals were all the rage during the 1960s, as can be seen from the list of Best Picture winners (no less than 4 musicals won the Academy's top prize during this period). But a further glance shows that studios and audiences were clamoring towards another very specific subgenre - the scandals of the English monarchy during the rule of King Henry II and King Henry VIII. Four such films were nominated for Best Picture - "Becket", "The Lion in Winter", "A Man for All Seasons" and "Anne of the Thousand Days" - but only "A Man for All Seasons" was able to triumph.
Having seen all but "Anne of the Thousand Days", this bit of trivia came as a surprise to me. I found this film to be the least affecting of them all, lacking the urgency of those Peter O'Toole starrers. In this instance, Zinnemann again proves to be a bit of a wildcard director. He is equally capable of producing riveting dramas ("From Here to Eternity") as he is with his more detached affairs ("The Nun's Story") saved by the superb acting from its leads. "A Man for All Seasons" is an example of the latter, featuring an acting masterclass from Paul Scofield. He gets to the heart of More, anchoring the film with his stoic, calm performance. With so many opportunities to showboat in various scenes, the control he displays is truly impressive.
Despite Scofield's captivating presence however, the film is still a bit too stately to be fully satisfying. The events that transpired here altered the course of society and religion forever, but the film didn't sufficiently convey the greater impact of the events, neither through performances nor staging. Bolt's screenplay is too stagebound, failing to open up to establish the wider social context. Without the ferocity of an O'Toole or Burton, the potency of this excellent material is thus diminished. "A Man for All Seasons" is a good film but it unfortunately falls short of the standard already set by its thematic peers.