A Man for All Seasons

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

14 February

Jane Boleyn executed, 1542

On this day in 1542, Jane Boleyn was executed. Not to be confused with her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, Jane went to meet her maker on the same day as Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard.

Jane had been born Jane Parker and had married George Boleyn (brother of Anne). She arrived at the court of the king as a young woman and had joined the household of the king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, before marrying George Boleyn who, according to various reports was a wild womaniser, or gay, or both.

In 1536 George Boleyn was arrested for the crime of sleeping with his sister, Anne (who was now queen). Jane testified against her husband, possibly because she resented his relationship with her sister-in-law, possibly because she was simply swept along on the wave of intrigue that would unseat the second queen and the entire Boleyn family.

Later, as the fifth wife’s attendant, she arranged clandestine meetings for the young queen Catherine with her lover, Thomas Culpeper. It was on the discovery of this fact that Henry VIII had both women imprisoned in the Tower of London. Jane, aged about 36, died on the same day as the teenage queen.

A Man for All Seasons (1966, dir: Fred Zinnemann)

One of a series of generally turgid royal costume dramas produced in Britain in the 1960s, A Man for All Seasons bucks the trend, though on paper it has all the hallmarks of the classic yawn.

Yes, it’s a stage play and yes, director Fred Zinnemann doesn’t do very much in the way of opening it out for the movie camera. Instead he leaves it down to the power of Robert Bolt’s original script, which essentially delineates a sumo-battle of wills in Tudor England.

It’s between Henry VIII, who wants to divorce his first wife, and Sir Thomas More, the only person pointing out that divorce is against the will of god and of the church of Rome. Ranged against More is not just the king, but the entire court, a gang of chisellers who’d sell their own mothers if it would keep them in favour with the crown.

Bolt’s brilliance is in exposing their motives without ever making them explicit. Zinneman’s brilliance is in keeping the actors playing all these roles on a very tight leash. There’s no such problem with Paul Scofield as Thomas More, but Robert Shaw as Henry VIII, Orson Welles as the scheming Cardinal Wolsey, Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell, all are capable of letting the boom of their own voices get the upper hand.

Moving from small chamber scenes to a grand inquisitorial finale, the film is concerned throughout with matters legal and theological, its triumph being that it turns potentially dry topics such as Henry’s split with Rome and his decision to make himself the head of his own church in England into compelling entertainment. A box office hit, a multiple Oscar winner, its timeless script means it works just as well today as it did when it was made.

Why Watch?

  • The great Paul Scofield’s first film performance – an Oscar winner
  • Ted Moore’s luscious Technicolor cinematography
  • Fabulous costumes by Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge
  • A cast including Vanessa Redgrave, John Hurt and Nigel Davenport

A Man for All Seasons – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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