Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Wendy Hiller in A Man for All Seasons

Wendy Hiller received her third and final Oscar nomination (second in the supporting category) for her performance as Lady Alice More in Fred Zinnemann's Best Picture winning A Man for All Seasons. Zinneman's film is now often seen as something of a typically stuffy choice by the Academy, with it's detailed period costumes, stagey direction, and loquacious monologues but it's far from a bad film and at times actually rather gripping. The film centers on Thomas More (Paul Scofield), a deeply religious man who struggles between his duty to the God and his duty to King Henry VIII (Richard Shaw). More is the Grand Chancellor of England, and refuses to back down from his principles when Henry VIII creates the Church of England in order to obtain a divorce from his infertile wife. Scofield is excellent in the film, portraying Thomas as a man of principle but not a saint, and in fact making More rather prickly and haughty. Wendy Hiller plays More's wife Lady Alice More, who believes steadfast in her husband's greatness and supports him while not being afraid to push back and challenge him on occasion when she thinks him too small-minded or selfish.

Wendy Hiller has perhaps the best sour face in the history of cinema, and thus excels at the first section of this film, where Lady Alice plays the role of the nagging, sassy wife. Hiller's Alice is a woman of strong opinions who is not afraid to throw them around, be they her opinions on her step-daughter's romantic interests or her husband's conflicted attitudes towards becoming Chancellor. Hiller portrays Alice as a simple woman of her times--one who wants the best for her family and has a clear affection for her huband that she expresses in a more outwardly brusque fashion. Her ambition for her husband is only because she has such a deep faith in his potential as a force for good for the king. She's ambitious out of love, not out of power. For the first two-thirds of the film, Wendy Hiller does not get much time to shine, instead always lurking in the background allowing either her face or voice to do all the work. It's a solid enough performance, nothing flashy and only occasionally overplaying the curmudgeonly aspects of Lady Alice.

What I wasn't expecting was what came next, because in her final two scenes of the film Hiller unexpectedly unveils moments of emotional frankness and raw impact. The first of these scenes comes when Alice and Thomas are discussing his resignation from the post of Chancellor. Thomas refuses to take an oath swearing that the Church of England has greater power than the Pope under principle, and Alice clearly worries about what this means for her family's future. In this moment Hiller reverses many of her previous acting choices, such as softening her voice where it once was harsh and severe or having Alice's hands shake as she speaks. Whereas in this scene her husband is somewhat nonchalant about his future she clearly augurs terrible things for him and is greatly troubled by it. This unveiling of Alice's fear and sadness for her husband's ruined potential is deeply moving. In this scene she also expresses the insecurities of Alice, who is afraid for her own future as well and perhaps even a little envious of her husband's great education. It's a fascinating scene in which Hiller pulls something of a turnabout on the audience. Her acting choices all land true, as does her softening of the character.

Lastly comes, of course, what might be described as her "Oscar scene" in which she visits her husband in jail following his imprisonment to plead with him to take the oath and return to his family. Lady Alice goes through the full range of emotion, starting out stubborn and indignant about her husband's refusal, then dipping into confusion towards the reasoning behind his motives, moving then to pain and hurt over what she sees as a lack of love for his family until finally settling on admiration for her husband's nobility and steadfast belief. It's a whirlwind of a scene that Hiller handles capably and with great skill, weaving us in and out of each and every motion organically. Her Lady Alice is far from a sophisticated woman, and each emotion change is rooted in insecurity and pure love for her husband. When Scofield's character comments "Why it's a lion I married" we completely understand what he means--Hiller's forceful emotional impact is lion-esque in it's ferocity and dominance.

On first go-round I found Wendy Hiller's performance to be nothing more than a tag along nomination for a stock supporting part, but as has happened more than a few times in this project (see also: Dorothy Malone, May Whitty) I discovered just how wrong I was on first assessment. This is more than just a stock performance, it's a stock performance imbued with such an impactful emotional charge and simple yet effective acting techniques. Whether she is expressing Lady Alice's ardor or softness Hiller is completely on-point. It's far from a flashy performance or one that elevates into the upper echelon of great ones, but it's an astonishing performance in it's simplicity and respect for this woman. A lion of a performance, indeed. 4/5 Thelmas.


Fritz said...

I really enjoy his performance and her last scene is wonderful! Great review! :)

Alex in Movieland said...

I don't remember a thing about this performance except that I liked it, but overall was not crazy about the film - and Burton >>> Scofield.

In other news, I haven't seen Pygmalion & Separate Tables.

Derek Bowman said...

Thanks Fritz! :D

Alex: I felt the same as you, but when I really focused on her perf, it really elevated to great. I'd definitely recommend a rewatch. I also have not seen ether Pygmalion or Separate Tables. More interested now though :)