Reviewer: Charity Bishop
I have heard a great deal about this film over the years, since it has impacted so many of the young lives that have watched it. People still talk about what a difference it made in their moral standards all these years later, after being "forced" to watch it in history class. I suppose then, I went in with high expectations and to a certain extent, they were fulfilled. It's not an adventurous film, just a simple one about an extraordinary man of faith.
Set in the turbulent reign of Henry VIII, the story follows the convictions of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), an idealist and close friend of His Majesty. Having mentored the king for many years, Thomas is firmly installed at court and oversees many of the judicial cases. He is known for being morally stable and unshakable in his Catholic faith. An author and devout family man, Thomas encourages the aspiring young souls clambering for a place at court to pursue their passions elsewhere, knowing that the court is a moral quagmire for anyone without a firm conscience and source of guidance. His staunch ideals prevent him from approving of the king's romance with the spirited Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave). Anne has refused to sleep with the king until their marriage is arranged, which makes Henry all the more eager to be rid of his wife Katherine. He puts the pressure on the ambitious Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) to convince all the religious authorities of the court to agree to an annulment on the basis that his marriage to Katherine is a farce.
Because Katherine is a woman of faith, and her marriage was blessed by the Pope in Rome, More refuses to join the league of others who are willing to throw her aside in favor of the king's whim. This allows his enemies at court to scheme against him. If he would but remain silent about his convictions and sign over his loyalty to Henry, who has firmly decided to establish a Protestant church in England in order to have his divorce, More would not be accused of treason. Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) and Richard Rich (John Hurt) have reason to silence him, but despite the pleading of his family and friends, the orders of the king, and his own sense of self preservation, Thomas remains unbending and defiant, and writes himself into martyrdom. The result is a very studious exploration of standing up for what you believe, despite the dangers.
There are many excellent lessons in the film, which is based on an award-winning play by Robert Bolt, and managed to capture an Oscar for Best Picture. More is a devout man who stands by his convictions, even when it would suit him to change his mind and conform to the desires of those around him. If nothing else, it will teach you the importance of being willing to die for your faith, since that is really what comes into central focus as the story moves on. It's not so much about divorce as Henry slandering More's beliefs, and in that sense, I'm rather sorry they did not pursue that aspect further. More did not die because he refused to acknowledge Anne as queen so much as he refused to agree that the temperamental, self-serving, lustful Henry should be the head of the new Protestant church. It is interesting to see the events of Protestantism through his eyes, and it takes more than a few jabs in the long run, but it's worth it.
My only complaint is that the film seems rather over-long and moves quite slowly at times. There were many excellent scenes, such as Thomas speaking with the boatman on the river, and his wife pleading with him to change his mind and sign the documents, or even Henry railing against him in the garden. But in the end, I was checking my watch a bit simply because the plot was starting to wear into melodrama. It is a good production, and everyone should see it at some point, but it could have been improved with a little more action. That being said, there's nothing really wrong with it aside from a handful of religious profanities. Jesus' name is abused a couple of times, and God d*** is said once or twice. "Hell" and "damnation" are also used in a religious context.
The casting was quite good. Henry came across as a spoiled brat, which history pretty much tells us he was, while More was a much more mature, resolved man. I was also delighted to see Wendy Hiller play More's wife, as I had never seen her quite so young before. Audiences might also be tickled to know that Redgrave played Mary, Queen of Scots only a few years later.