This is the story of Sir Thomas More (Paul Schofield), who succeeds Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) as King Henry VIII’s (Robert Shaw) Lord Chancellor. When Henry seeks to leave the Catholic Church to found a religion more suited to his volatile love life, More refuses to support his ambitions and swiftly falls from the king’s favour.
This tale of the original Brexit is a fine re-telling of one of the most pivotal events in English history. Based on a play, it focuses on More’s journey, with the wider political events forming the backdrop. It covers a lot of ground at some speed, and it would be good to see more of his relationship with the king, particularly during his glossed over three years as Lord Chancellor. It’s authentically filmed in and around Hampton Court; big Henry’s famous country pile, and well directed if choppily edited in places.
Schofield is superb in the lead role, giving a restrained performance that shows less is More, successfully capturing the man’s integrity, honesty and good nature. He’s forced to choose between personal values and loyalty to the king; love of country and love of church, and at various points these competing interests overlap and align with each other. As those around him conform to get ahead (or keep their heads) he finds himself increasingly divorced from the values they are coming to accept.
This film came as part of an Orson Welles box set, but like its case-mate Waterloo it features very little of the screen legend. However, in his short scenes Welles excels as a ballsy Wolsey, bringing the raw anger of an older Charles Foster Kane to the hard-nosed cardinal. The rest of the cast are also excellent, including Nigel Davenport as the Duke of Norfolk, Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell and a young John Hurt as Richard Rich. Shaw is also great as the chubby autocrat, showing a sense of humour and amiability to the king we don’t often see, in addition to his paranoia and quick temper.
I recently read More’s Utopia which is, in many ways, a remarkably modern vision of a perfect society which could scarcely be further from England in the Middle Ages. It’s a wonder to think he could have written it at the time, and the film successfully shows his capacity for free thinking which led to both his appointment as Lord Chancellor and his ultimate downfall. It’s an engrossing story and by the time the credits role you’ll be asking for More.