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Thomas More, saint and statesman. February 2, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood very much enjoyed watching the HBO series on Henry VIII, “The Tudors,” through Netflix. There were so many superb performances throughout the series: James Frain as Thomas Cromwell, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII, Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey.

Not least among them was Jeremy Northam as Sir/St. Thomas More. Northam had to play the difficult and complex role of a man who burned six Protestant heretics under his own supervision, yet acted for the good of their souls, as he truly believed, and went fearlessly to his death defending those same beliefs, along with other Catholic stalwarts and martyrs like St. John Fisher, Bishop and Cardinal, who refused to bend to Henry VIII’s increasing madness coupled with essential weakness.

Can a man who burned innocent men at the stake truly be a saint? Can a man who abandoned his own family to persecution and destitution for his beliefs be considered a good man? This is the paradox of St. Thomas More, a paradox Jeremy Northam handled with sensitivity and grace. You could see More’s faith and his torment, his gentleness, intellect, ambition, and bravery. It’s always hardest to portray a difficult, potentially unlikeable character, and make us love him despite his flaws; we think Mr. Northam deserves great acclaim for his understated but gorgeous interpretation.

Silence and I were discussing this at length last night, because we’d been watching one of our all-time favorite films, “A Man for All Seasons,” for the first time in several years. Like “The Tudors,” “A Man for All Seasons” is about King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, and, above all, St. Thomas More. But unlike “The Tudors,” “A Man for All Seasons” presents only the noble side of Thomas More, a man who was ambitious, yes, but ultimately had no issues reconciling his ambition and his conscience.

Here was the saint, with no dark shadows in the form of burning those whose beliefs differed from his. Here was a man who sacrificed his friendships and family on the altar of the Most High, with well considered, compassionate, exalted statements for all occasions. Here was a part that was easier to play.

The cast of “A Man for All Seasons” was simply staggering in terms of sheer talent. Besides Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, there were Dame Wendy Hiller as his wife Alice, Susannah York as his daughter Meg, Sir Corin Redgrave as his son-in-law, Will Roper, Robert Shaw as a spot-on Henry VIII, Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn, Nigel Davenport as a marvelous Duke of Norfolk, a very young John Hurt in a fine performance as the slimy Richard Rich, Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, and Leo McKern, eventually to make his mark as Rumpole of the Bailey, as the corrupt and ruthless Cromwell.

How did they do? In our view, their performances were so magnificent that the film is timeless. Having seen Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits from life of St. Thomas More, majestic, intelligent, and sensitive, and of Thomas Cromwell, fat, piggy-eyed, clearly the butcher’s son, we feel that the actors fulfilled their roles to perfection. Everything we have read about Henry VIII at that point in his life was captured by Robert Shaw’s performance—attractive and talented, exuberant, uncertain, longing for love and approval and determined by God to get it and brook no opposition. Shaw’s was the most nuanced and difficult performance in “A Man for All Seasons,” since he had to show a modern audience why people put up with Henry, why they loved him still despite his horrendous behavior and crimes. He pulled it off without a hitch. The golden prince beloved by all was still apparent in his Henry, and the monster who ultimately took his place was still only a shadow.

As for St. Thomas, Paul Scofield’s performance was enticing, compelling, drawing us in and making us weep as he was inexorably drawn to his death for refusing to sanction Henry’s role as Head of the Church in England. We still think “A Man for All Seasons” is one of our top ten movies of all time. But we also think Jeremy Northam had by far the harder task, portraying the torturer as well as the loving family man, the man who burned innocents at the stake, forcing himself to watch and still begging them to recant, as well as the man who was willing to die by the same principles by which he had lived. We have no doubt that Jeremy Northam’s Thomas More would have died on the rack or the stake for his ideals, in the same way his victims did. 

How do we feel about that? As Catholics, we of course applaud those who, like our own families, held to their faith in the face of threat of torture, death, and disinheritance by a king greedy to take the wealth of the monasteries and the property of private citizens into his own coffers. As human beings, we deplore anyone who tortures another for failing to agree with his own interpretation of faith. And we can relate to the terrified Protestants and Jews who faced the same threats and fears.

Who and what is St. Thomas More? We urge you to watch “A Man for All Seasons” and “The Tudors” and decide for yourself.

Meanwhile, a bit of trivia: It may seem obvious why Thomas More was called “A Man for All Seasons,” since he was a great humanist and scholar, one of the precursors to the Renaissance Men of the next generation. But our friend Ben wondered if there was more (pardon the pun) to it than that, if perhaps the title was taken from a line by Henry VIII himself, penned or spoken in happier times. It took me an unconscionable length of time to find out, but eventually I found the origin of the phrase, written by More’s contemporary Robert Whittington in 1520, while Thomas More was still alive and in everyone’s good graces: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow [equal]. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness [humility] and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometimes of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”  This was, indeed, the man both Paul Scofield and Jeremy Northam captured for us on film.