May 2015

Arts & Letters

The king and I

By Benjamin Law
How the television adaptation of ‘Wolf Hall’ transcends the usual Tudor tale

Several months back, the United Kingdom fell victim to an illness so contagious that it tore through the adult population at an average rate of 4.4 million people per week. They had come down with Wolf Hall fever. Like the “sweating sickness” that ravaged 16th-century Tudor England, the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) reduced viewers to a stupor. It became BBC Two’s highest-rating show in recent times.

Even knowing this, I was sceptical. I was seemingly born with an aversion to TV period dramas and Merchant Ivory films, which, to me, often look like the dressing room of a rich private school’s drama department exploded. If there’s anything even slightly off the mark – an unconvincing set, an overly silly costume – I see terrible sketch comedy just waiting to happen. Use the word “sumptuous” anywhere in the promotional material and you’ve lost me.

Over the past decade, the Tudor dynasty has taken up a lot of not-so-great screen time. The 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl saw Eric Bana play Henry VIII as a cross between English royalty and brooding Calvin Klein hunk, while the Showtime series The Tudors presented itself as history lesson via MTV, enthusiastically focusing on bums, boobs, and beheading after jolly beheading. Sure, the source material is gory, bodice-ripping fun, but do we really need another screen version of the Tudors?

The Wolf Hall miniseries (which spans the events of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) is another beast entirely: mostly exhilarating and only occasionally exhausting. Everyone uses the word “marathon” now to describe watching episodes of any TV show back-to-back, but Wolf Hall warrants the title. Its six hour-long episodes are a slow burn, requiring complete focus, and not just because, as Mantel notes in the novel, “half the world is called Thomas”. Anyone who isn’t completely invested in this Tudor history from the start will quickly fall by the wayside. Everyone else, however, will be rapt. Viewers who need assistance (a significant portion of Wolf Hall non-readers) will be helped along by astute, economical title cards. “Here’s where we’re at,” screenwriter Peter Straughan tells us at the start of every episode, “and this is what’s at stake.”

Mantel’s novels illuminated the whole era (England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, the bloody start of the Protestant movement in Europe) while restoring brains to the Tudor franchise. From Mantel’s perspective, the best brain of that era belonged to Thomas Cromwell: architect of the Reformation, loyal servant to the king and quiet prodigy of statecraft.

In most retellings of Henry VIII’s story, Cromwell is portrayed as a jowly opportunist, a sycophant who yields to the king’s every demand. Mantel’s novels called bullshit on that interpretation. Her Cromwell is an admirably shrewd man of low birth and high talent, who escapes a childhood of violent horror to become one of the most powerful figures in the kingdom – the ultimate outsider turned insider. Cromwell might have only been a small element of the Tudor galaxy, but it took Mantel to illustrate the extent to which he influenced the major stars. By putting Cromwell at the narrative centre, Mantel gave a sidelined character new humanity and lent the entire Tudor story far greater moral complexity.

Readers of Mantel’s books will involuntarily grunt with pleasure when they see Mark Rylance play Thomas Cromwell. British faces are always such assets for historical shows like these. (Unusual teeth! Beaky noses! Plump cheeks!) The veteran stage actor loans Cromwell his gorgeously crumpled eyes, giving the sense of a man who has witnessed atrocities but genuinely believes goodness and reform are both necessary and possible. Cromwell is a character who can rarely betray what he’s really thinking, which is an unenviable challenge for any actor, but Rylance’s soulful and wry expressions are so clearly conveyed that each of his eyebrows warrants its own BAFTA nomination.

Fittingly, when we first encounter Cromwell, we don’t even hear him. It’s 1529 and Cromwell is working for Cardinal Wolsey, the Archbishop of York and aide to Henry VIII. Wolsey is being expelled from office, having failed to successfully petition Rome to annul the king’s marriage to Queen Catherine, who has failed to produce a male heir after 20 long years. Ever loyal to his cardinal, Cromwell is forced to think on his feet as two bullying dukes – Norfolk and Suffolk – storm Wolsey’s headquarters to strip him of his title, assets and even clothes. Cromwell lurks in the shadows and his first lines aren’t audible. With wit and possibly a whole lot of bluffing, Cromwell buys the cardinal time, forcing the dukes to return later. Who wouldn’t want Mark Rylance’s Cromwell in their corner? (Well, as we soon discover: Anne Boleyn.)

It’s in scenes at Cromwell’s home at Austin Friars that his humanity is properly resuscitated. Glimpses of affection and tragedy involving Cromwell’s wife and children – moving in the novel, wrenching on screen – anchor Mantel’s thesis that this is a man who deserves to be better remembered by history. No matter how Cromwell acts in service to the king, Peter Straughan’s script punctuates, and often bookends, episodes with reminders of Cromwell’s real values and allegiances. After Wolsey falls out of favour, servants at Cromwell’s home ask whether they should paint over the cardinal’s coat of arms on a wall. Cromwell takes a look at the paint job and replies, “Paint it again. Paint it brighter.” A vocal critic of the Catholic Church and British monarchy, Hilary Mantel is – at heart – a rebel. So is her version (and Straughan’s) of Thomas Cromwell.

It’s not until the end of the first episode that we even meet Henry VIII, usually the central character of any Tudor drama. He is played by Damian Lewis, recently escaped from the increasingly thankless role of tortured soldier Nicholas Brody in Homeland. Lewis, whose acting in Homeland trod a fine line between intense and constipated, is perfectly cast here. His evolution from alpha jock of the kingdom to dead-eyed, wife-murdering monster is skin-crawling. Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn, played with the petulance of a ruffled hen, is almost equally hideous. Viewers may loathe Foy’s seemingly unsympathetic take, but her dripping condescension and small cruelties help convince us Boleyn partly designed her own death. There’s a spark – a constant flicker – in Foy’s acting; as much as it can grate, once it’s snuffed out we discover we desperately wanted it to stay alight all along.

Light is a rare commodity in the night scenes of Wolf Hall, because the director, Peter Kosminsky, almost exclusively shot the series in available light. Candles and oil lamps afford Wolf Hall a suitably Caravaggian palette of blood and raw meat. Some viewers in the UK complained they couldn’t even see the actors; the well-sighted will more likely find these scenes eerily beautiful. However, this aggressive authenticity can be annoying during daylight. The high-def brightness had me expecting a jetski to zoom past Wolsey’s boat at any second.

The hero in all of this really is Straughan. Anyone who has read the books will question the wisdom of condensing them into a single, relatively short miniseries. The novel Wolf Hall is the size of a brick – one of those books that could kill a small child if thrown with enough force – and that’s not even factoring in Bring Up the Bodies. Any screenwriter who can pack well over a thousand pages into six hours – and not cause any major grief over omissions – has achieved a small miracle. Sure, some scenes are rushed. When Wolsey is evicted, for instance, we can see the distress clearly on his face, but not the extent of his privation once he’s in his new quarters, as written in the book. But those are quibbles. Straughan has essentially taken a giant swinging rope of story, plucked out the core strand – Thomas Cromwell’s revenge after the sacking of his beloved Wolsey – and built the series around it. What could easily have become a bloated excess of BBC pageantry is instead a quietly humming engine of conflict. Straughan also knows a good line when he sees it. Every good quip – Princess Mary’s face being described as a “talking shrimp”, Cromwell looking at a Catholic instrument of self-torture and remarking, “People ought to be found better jobs” – is taken almost directly from Mantel’s novels.

It’s well documented how Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s marriage ended. It isn’t pretty. The success of Wolf Hall isn’t just that it evokes genuine horror. (A filmmaker who can’t horrify an audience with a beheading isn’t doing their job.) In those final shots – the silent swing of the sword, the matter-of-fact picking up of the head, the women’s bloodied hands – we feel not only sympathy but also, through Cromwell, a sickening culpability. It’s what any good history lesson should do.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.


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