A Man of Conviction: Northam’s Sir Thomas More

31 Jul

One of the most underrated performances ever to grace the small screen is the role of Thomas More in the Showtime series, The Tudors. It is an iconic characterization, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to portray one of the most controversial men in history, an individual who strongly opposed the Reformation, defied a monarch, and ultimately sacrificed his life as a martyr for his faith.

Sir Thomas was one of King Henry’s closest friends and advisors until the Act of Succession divided them. Henry had decided to abandon his wife, Katharine of Aragon, and marry a commoner, Anne Boleyn. He appealed to Rome for an annulment, but the Church sided with Katharine, believing their marriage was valid. Because they refused to grant him a divorce, Henry dissolved Rome’s authority in England and made himself the head of the Church of England. All his nobles and officials of the court were asked to sign a legal document swearing an oath of aliegance that also denounced Katharine as the queen and removed her daughter from the line of succession. Sir Thomas hoped for a time that he might be able to sign it in good conscience, but as it would have forced him to deny his central belief in the Roman Catholic Church, he could not. Because he could not sign it, and because Henry could not permit him to engage in civil disobedience, he was sentenced to death and executed.

His story and the political motivations behind his trial and execution first came to public interest with the theatrical production of A Man For All Seasons, which depicts him as a man of immense compassion and understanding caught up in a situation he cannot avoid. And while it is indeed that depiction of him that is the most accurate, I personally am fond of his role in The Tudors, which allows us to explore much more fully his involvement in the intrigues of court, his role in delaying the Reformation, and his relationship not only with Henry but also Katharine and his family. We are permitted to peer into his personal life and witness his religious convictions, which are vital to comprehending the convictions that led to his death. It is the smaller but meaningful scenes we remember the most: wearing a hair shirt for penance as he prays; his gracious support of and reassurances to the downtrodden Katharine; his desperate, tearful prayers after the execution of a “heretic,” as he guiltily questions his own involvement in bringing about a man’s death.

It is a testament to his immense talent that Northam can act through such a dramatic and at times extremist personality (after all, Sir Thomas does partake in interrogating and burning a heretic, and supports an underground uprising against Anne Boleyn) and still tug on the heartstrings of even the most antagonistic audiences. One young woman I know held his character in nothing but contempt at the end of the first season, but by his death was in tears, having succumbed to the power of a gut-wrenching performance. My mother quit watching after his last episode, for having seen him die she could not bear to go on. And although I continued out of fondness for the remaining characters and a love for historical epics, I admit that after his departure, the spark left the series. Having been a fan for a number of years, when I first heard he was to join the cast in that particular, iconic role, I was delighted, for I knew he would do a magnificent job. He did not disappoint me, filling his character with rich emotion, unquestionable depth, and maturity. It is Sir Thomas that our eye is drawn to, quiet in his thoughts and unmoving in his convictions, while the fiery monarch is center stage, throwing tantrums and ordering executions, in part due to his mysteriousness but mostly because of Northam’s unquestionable presence.

There are many marvelous scenes, most of them conspiring with Bishop Fisher or confronting an enraged Henry, but one of my favorites is when Sir Thomas risks the king’s wrath by visiting the banished and demoralized Katharine of Aragon. He reassures the heartbroken former queen that she is not forgotten, she is admired, and she is in all their prayers. I love how he is shown as her supporter and champion, even if he cannot publicly defend her. It is more than his belief in fairness that accompanies his respect for Katharine, but his appreciation of her strong faith, matched only by his own. It is also no coincidence that out of all the characters in the series, they are the most continually empathetic, two pillars of moral conviction and virtue in a sea of political ambition and debauchery. One of his most powerful moments, however, is coming to the realization at his trial that all is lost and he may as well speak his mind. Filthy and bedraggled, surrounded by his enemies, Sir Thomas stands proud before the court and proclaims at long last his true opinion.

It is not a happy story, in fact it is one full of sadness and ultimate tragedy, but I am not sorry for having seen it, for it permitted to me to come to know, respect, and admire Sir Thomas More as he was depicted, faults and all. It is true, Paul Scofield first defined the impassioned Sir Thomas More, but Jeremy Northam transformed him into a living, breathing man of tremendous faith and unwavering resolve, a man flawed but ultimately worth remembering if for nothing more than clinging to his convictions.

by Charity Bishop

Charity Bishop runs her own website, Charity’s Place, which houses an amazing array of reviews of movies and tv productions. I highly recommend setting some time aside for a good old browse; there is much to be enjoyed.

15 Responses to “A Man of Conviction: Northam’s Sir Thomas More”

  1. henrysmummy2003 July 31, 2010 at 11:49 pm #

    Thank you Charity, a really interesting read about one of Jeremy’s best roles.

  2. Joan aka HazelP August 1, 2010 at 12:10 am #

    This is an absolutely superb posting by guest blogger Charity Bishop on the unfortunately sadly neglected by the award groups what I have seen described as an acting performance of a lifetime by Jeremy Northam. A five star review for a five star performance.

  3. Rosamond Tifft August 1, 2010 at 1:12 am #

    I want you to know that this site has helped me see all that I have been missing of Jeremy.

    Charity’s analysis was clear and focused and exciting to read. There’s only one Paul Scofield in whatever he did but there’s only one Jeremy too, it would seem, so now I have to add this to my list. Looks like I can find this much more easily than some other things. It’s took courage for Jeremy to take on this iconic role from an iconic actor, but he knew had had good things and original to bring to the role and it would seem he did. I am encouraged and fascinated by his courage and tenacity and talent, in his talent as well.

    I plan to check Charity site out as well. She writes very appealingly.

  4. Ansie August 1, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    Thanks Charity for your excellent review and the insights you shared. JN’s performance of Sir Thomas was pitch-perfect and it is too bad it was not recognized during the award season.

  5. Charity August 1, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    Thanks for reading, everyone!

    The fact that Northam was not only not awarded for this performance but also ignored completely still frustrates me, because it really is a magnificent role and he undertook it with incredible passion and screen presence. It’s a very different performance from his usual fare and he does it with grace and distinction.

    In my personal ranking of favorite JN characters, I’d say Sir Thomas comes in second (right behind Mr. Knightley… it doesn’t get better than that).

  6. Bess August 1, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    I wish that the Tudors did not annoy me as a show so much, because I really would like to see Jeremy play More, particularly at the end. I reverence Paul Scofield’s portrayal of him in the famous film, but I liked what I saw of Jeremy’s take on him as well. I should really see if I can rent the relevant episodes and watch it that way, fast-forwarding to his parts.

    I found the bits of the first season that I did see so inauthentic, both costume-wise and historically, that I just couldn’t watch anymore, but I really should go back and try to see his bits at least.

    I recommend, by the way, to anyone interested in More, if I haven’t already recommended it, the biography of More by his son-in-law William Roper. It really gives you a sense of what the man was like, particularly during his last days, from the point of view of a relative who tried to help him when he was in the Tower. It’s biased, obviously, but there are kernels of truth about More in there that I found very illuminating, and made me a fan of Thomas More for life.

    • henrysmummy2003 August 1, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

      I really must get a copy of that book, thank you Bess.
      It IS worth persevering with The Tudors seasons 1 and 2. Season 1 has a wonderful performance by Sam Neill, and then season 2 belongs to Jeremy, plain and simple. Turn a blind eye to the scenes they are not in, and enjoy 2 great actors turning in great performances. Jeremy’s More is quite wonderful.

  7. Martina August 1, 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    Many thanks for your wonderful and very true review. Yes, may be that the series “The Tudors” is not historical correct and that there is some sensationalism but it definitly affects ones feelings. Jeremy Northam`s performance is beyond reproach and he was portraying Thomas More in a very fine way. (Sorry, my English is not that good)

    • henrysmummy2003 August 1, 2010 at 8:29 pm #

      I agree, Martina, Jeremy’s performance is beyond reproach (btw, no issues with your English there that you need apologise for!):-)

  8. Charity August 2, 2010 at 2:45 am #

    Sometimes the show does annoy me, simply because I know so much about the historical eras, but I am able to put it aside and enjoy it for what it is — sexed up history that takes the same sort of liberties many novelists do. I would not say Jeremy is the ONLY highlight, either — Sam Neil is magnificent, of course, but Maria Doyle Kennedy also blew me away with her performance as Katharine of Aragon, and of course Natalie Dormer gives it all she’s got in her last few episodes as Anne Boleyn. If you can shut off your historical knowledge, you’ll probably enjoy it. I do!

  9. Jennythenipper August 2, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    I agree the spark went out of Tudors for me when they killed of Thomas More. Other performances have been good and I hear the current season is quite good, but I sort of have to force myself to watch it.

    “but one of my favorites is when Sir Thomas risks the king’s wrath by visiting the banished and demoralized Katharine of Aragon. He reassures the heartbroken former queen that she is not forgotten, she is admired, and she is in all their prayers. I love how he is shown as her supporter and champion, even if he cannot publicly defend her.”

    Word! That is such a great scene. Great chemistry between those two actors, too. I wish there would have been more scenes with those two.

    One of the things I liked about the series was that it showed a balanced portrait of More making him neither a saint or an unbearable zealot. It’s interesting in the arc of the show that More’s is really the first execution and Henry’s reaction to it is the strongest. After that he gets increasingly calloused.

    • henrysmummy2003 August 2, 2010 at 10:50 pm #

      The main problem for me (apart from the script…) was the casting of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as H8. JRM does have chops, albeit raw ones, but this was really not his role. Yes, he has charisma, but this is such a difficult role to carry off and, imo, he really struggled. It certainly didn’t help that he was surrounded by some really excellent actors.
      I have greater hopes for the new series, The Borgias, since Jeremy Irons is cast as the star.

  10. LauraP August 3, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

    Wonderful post, Charity! Sir Thomas More was a great role for Jeremy and he was truly amazing.

    “One of his most powerful moments, however, is coming to the realization at his trial that all is lost and he may as well speak his mind. Filthy and bedraggled, surrounded by his enemies, Sir Thomas stands proud before the court and proclaims at long last his true opinion.”

    I couldn’t agree more! To me, that scene is one of the most brilliant pieces of acting I’ve ever seen–even before he opens his mouth! The look on his face when he sees Richard Rich (his betrayer)–the gaze up toward the heavens and then resignedly down–always takes my breath away. The speech that follows is powerful and emotional without veering into bathos.

    Thanks for a great review!

  11. henrysmummy2003 August 4, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    Can I just mention that Charity provided the images for this article too, and they are great, an excellent reflection of Jeremy’s performance in this role.


  1. Happy 50th Birthday to Jeremy Northam! « The Jeremy Northam Blog - December 1, 2011

    […] example: The first thing I saw him in was Emma, and then I forgot about him—the shame!—until The Tudors. That reminded me what a great actor Jeremy is, and I sought out some of his intervening work. […]

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