Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 8, 2007)
Poor Henry the Eighth - he had a rough time in the Sixties. First Herman's Hermits released that atrocious song, "I'm Henry VIII, I Am". Technically, it wasn't about the monarch - it played on his name by association with some dork who was the eighth guy named Henry (or "Enery", as Peter Noone called him) to marry the same woman.
If that blight on popular music weren't enough, we then find 1966's A Man For All Seasons, a film that involved Henry's kingdom. Unlike the song, the man himself plays an important role in the picture, though the story concerns the conscience of Sir Thomas More, a one-time chancellor of England who falls far and fast due to his refusal to neglect his beliefs to serve political means.
This is the kind of tale that could make for an epic saga, but Seasons is not the film to offer a grand, dramatic telling. In fact, this movie seems almost unbelievably dull considering the subject matter. How could such high drama become so bland and listless?
Seasons was adapted by Robert Bolt from his own play. Therein lies some of the answer to my question. By necessity, stagework tends to be much more driven by dialogue and less visceral than are films, for obvious reasons. Different scenarios and settings can be displayed much more realistic and literally in a movie, whereas plays have to suggest these things in more subtle ways. This means lots of talk, as dialogue is the most logical way to advance the story on a stage.
And that's why so many screen adaptations of plays seem so dull. Not enough liberty is taken with the original material to truly modify it for film. Such is the case with Seasons; the subject matter seems rendered impotent by the dry treatment. Although the movie does go outdoors, most of the "action" limits itself to some interior sets, and almost nothing happens that isn't spoken. Most things are told to us, not shown.
Some may accuse my bias against dialogue-laden films as being anti-intellectual or whatnot, but I disagree. I'm not saying that every
movie has to be as visual as Armageddon or some other project that could never exist on a stage. I simply don't see the point of adapting films from plays if the advantages of the medium will not be used.
Seasons definitely does not do anything that makes it interesting as a film, and the whole piece appears flat and drab. This is the kind of movie that makes people avoid historical dramas. Plenty of pictures have dealt with similar subjects well and have made them visually compelling; Elizabeth provided an excellent example of that category. None of that movie's flair or drama appear in Seasons, however, as it seems so bound to the printed page that any possible life is driven out of it.
As with another play adapted into a movie – Driving Miss Daisy - I can't find any real faults with the technical aspects of the film other than its inherent stiffness. Otherwise, the piece was well-crafted. The plot moves slowly but keeps on an acceptable pace, and most of the performances are adequate. I don't think Paul Scofield deserved an Oscar for his portrayal of More, but he provides decent work in the role and certainly isn't the reason for the movie's problems.
Ironically, the only "large" performance in Seasons is actually its worst. Robert Shaw plays Henry VIII and does so in an absurdly bold manner. I generally like Shaw's work. He provided terrific acting in Jaws and Force 10 From Navarone, but he simply tries too hard here. He makes
Henry a silly caricature and a buffoon. He provides a laugh or two but renders the character too goofy for us to take seriously, something that negatively affects the story.
I can't say I really disliked A Man For All Seasons, if just because it taught me a little about a subject that is largely unknown to me. However, it proceeds in such a bland and stiff manner that I could muster no affection or excitement for it. It stands as a perfect representation of the dull, serious dramas that have often won Best Picture Academy Awards, and that's not meant as a compliment.