When conscience and Crown collide

'A Man for All Seasons' - a study in conscience versus politics.
'A Man for All Seasons' - a study in conscience versus politics.

‘A Man for All Seasons’ is a timeless classic portraying a common dilemma during the Tudor period - can someone keep their convictions while keeping their head?

When the person concerned is a high officer of state then that becomes a little more difficult, especially in the turmoil leading up to the momentous events of the English Reformation and the country’s split from the Catholic Church.

Adapted by Robert Bolt from his own successful play, the focus is Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) who had the dubious luck of being appointed as Henry’s Lord Chancellor during his attempts to secure a divorce from his first wife to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn. More refuses to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul the marriage to Catherine of Aragon and resigns rather than take the Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry (Robert Shaw) Supreme Head of the Church in England.

Although criticised as an idealised portrait of More, it stays true to the basic dilemma he faced - abandon his principles and acknowledge the King’s authority or stand fast and face the consequences of his “treason”.

A lavish, Oscar-winning production, ‘A Man for All Seasons’ is quality from start to finish and features some towering performances not least from Scofield himself, who also won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal, and from a young Robert Shaw as the King. The pivotal scene between the two men in the garden of More’s Chelsea home where the King’s obsession and More’s reticence clash is simply riveting.

It also features a top-notch supporting cast of British character actors including Wendy Hiller as More’s wife Alice, Susannah York as his daughter Margaret and the late Nigel Davenport as the Duke of Norfolk, as well as Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, More’s predecessor. Apart from liberties taken with historical fact, it’s difficult to fault but extremely easy to enjoy.