9.21.2008

Wendy Hiller in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

There's a bit of danger in posting my regular profile of a performance after the Smackdown's already happened. Indeed, sometimes, investing just that little bit more attention to the performance in question (while timing, screencapping, etc) reveals subtly hidden depth and dimension, all too easily missed on a first pass. And then, it's all, "Mayyybe I should have given another heart to this performance, after all. Mayyyyyybe I could even still..." But, by then -- or by now, as the case may be -- it's too late. The moment has passed. The hearts must stand. Another lesson learned on Supporting Actress Sundays. And this Sunday, my able teacher has been...

...Wendy Hiller in A Man for All Seasons (1966)
approximately 15 minutes and 48 seconds
11 scenes
roughly 13% of film's total running time
Wendy Hiller plays Lady Alice, the devoted wife of Sir Thomas More, the English statesman whose steadfast devotion to religious and legal principle, in an era of political treachery and expedience, occasions his doom.
It might be easy to dismiss Hiller's portrayal of Lady Alice More (as I think I may have initially) as a blowsy earth mother, grimacing and growling her way through the role solely to underscore the tension between the character's humble, laboring origins and her more courtly, present social station. (Indeed, I first suspected Hiller's work in the role was mostly interesting as a cleverish take on the Mores as a Tudor version of "nouveau riche.)
As the actress snorts her way through Lady Alice's early dashes of domestic comedy -- ostensibly included to humanize the impossibly ideal Sir Thomas (Paul Scofield, in a deservedly revered performance) -- Hiller's broad facial and vocal flourishes might seem at times ill-fitting to the gravitas of both the role and the film, especially in the film's middle scenes when Lady Alice's impatient, irascible practicality provide the focus of the character.
Yet, amidst all Lady Alice's apparent shortsightedness, Hiller's performance amplifies the essential truth at the core of this garrulous Lady: Alice loves her husband, Thomas. True, she doesn't feel entirely appreciated by him. And, yes, his formidable intelligence -- as well as that of her daughter, groomed by her husband to be his intellectual peer -- does intimidate her.
But Hiller's Lady Alice knows that she knows her husband Sir Thomas better than any human. So, when even she finds herself at her limit in comprehending why her husband would take such a stand against the king, Alice's inner conflict animates the emotional core of the film: the palpably human risk of taking a principled stand against power.
Hiller clearly marks the complex emotional contours of this conflict when she visits her husband, for what is to be the last time, within his damp prison cell. In this bravura scene, Hiller illuminates not only that she is "a lion" (as per Thomas's apt description) but also that she's the sole person capable of instigating an emotional break in her husband's apparently serene, intellectually sanguine edifice of noble self-sacrifice. As Hiller's strength in this sequence amplifies, it becomes devastatingly clear that Lady Alice's unflinching witness -- not the entreaties of his beloved daughter -- holds the potential to cause Thomas to break his conscientious resolve.
When Hiller's Alice bellows to the top of the Tower of London -- declaiming her doubt in both the British crown and in God -- hers is such an elemental shriek that it's almost a surprise that the stone roof doesn't cleave open to permit God's own reprieve. And when the heavens don't open, the moment becomes a devastating confirmation of the human certainty of Thomas impending execution. In this turn, Hiller scores a moment of genuine feeling, an emotionally tectonic shift in the foundation of this intellectual passion play.
With deft clarity (and more than a little bit of actorly stealth), Wendy Hiller thus ably animates the heart of this all-too "heady" a picture. (And in my heart of hearts, she's retroactively earned one, or even two, more Smackdown hearts than she already had...)

2 comments:

Slayton said...

Eh... I didn't think she was that good. True, the last scene is good, but for the most part I just couldn't understand why More would have married such a dimwit.

Alex in Movieland said...

She's not exactly a trophy wife and she does look a bit like the Grinch, but I thought Wendy Hiller did a very nice work (although the screenplay helped sh!t). I thought the movie was SO overrated and (for me) she managed to stand out from the crowd.

and yes, I enjoy a big crying scene :D