Wolf Hall – TV series
Directed by Peter Kominsky
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell
I haven’t reviewed a TV series before, and I’m going to do this one an episode at a time as they’re shown. It’s going under FILM, not having a TV category nor enough space on the top menu to add one.
Normally, I’d never start, as so many mini-series are started but then I abandon them. In this case, the hard disc recorder is programmed for the series in HD. I’m going for a viewing diary format, adding an episode a week, though other life events may mean some delays in watching later ones.
I hadn’t realized that Wolf Hall on TV is actually the first TWO books in the trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Volume three is due from Hilary Mantel in 2015, and I hope the cast are contracted,
With Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, I’ve heard the audio books, seen the plays (the plays are linked) and read the books (in that order). I didn’t think much of the plays. I thought the audio books were brilliant single narrator work.
In 2010, when I started this blog, I mentioned that you watch stuff hoping for that rare transcendental performance, like Peter Brooks’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As I said then, you wait for years and then two come along together, both modern verse versions of French stories, The Misanthrope with Damien Lewis, and La Bête with Mark Rylance. Two of the best acting performances I’ve seen. The casting director for Wolf Hall has put them together with Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. Add Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, Richard III and Twelfth Night, all reviewed here. During this run, I’ve added Farinelli & The King with Mark Rylance at the Wanamaker Playhouse, which I saw between Episodes 5 and 6.
Some of the filming, “York House” was done at Montacute House in Somerset. We visited it last year, just before they started filming.
Episode One: Three Card Trick
There is an authentic practices / Wanamaker Playhouse / Globe influence at work. The TV drama feels “real” with apparent candlelit lighting, and dark, often quite bare 16th century interiors. The camera is fond of following Rylance along corridors as Thomas Cromwell. I assume, that like the novel, we will not see any scenes in which Cromwell is not present. Often this will be in an observing role, particularly at the beginning before he comes to prominence. Rylance does masterful silent watchfulness. He inhabits the role, the Thomas Cromwell of my imagination. His physical slightness is turned into an expression of power and charisma. He may be tiny compared to the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), or Henry VIII but his unflinching response radiates strength. The death of his wife and daughters was deeply moving. The dinner with Sir Thomas More is brilliant acting, turning on one carefully placed swearword.
Accents: Cromwell’s light estuary is perfect. In the audio book Anne Boleyn is French-accented. Here, wisely I think, they had her doing the odd line in French, and employing her sneering French pronunciation of “Cremerwell” but not being French accented otherwise.
Cromwell leaves Anne Boleyn’s court
An issue with Episode One is the introduction of characters. Major people flit in. It’s excellent that Henry VIII is held back until the last few minutes. Anne Boleyn is a short scene, Mary Boleyn only has a couple of lines. I assume it was Jane Seymour who had one line in the scene at Anne’s, but who knows. The tabloids were complaining in advance that she was too pretty for the role. You couldn’t judge last night, but in my mind, from the book, Jane should be a waif-like, short, thin and plain girl. Se should look younger than her real age, and it should be a surprise that the King is later attracted to her … and her part is much less in Wolf Hall than it is in Bring Up The Bodies.
A lot of back story is told fast. For example, the Cardinal’s early dispute with Thomas Boleyn over Henry Percy”s relationship with Anne. It’s going to be crucial later. If you were new to the story, would you think it significant or follow it? You need to know both novels then (and I pray that they’ve contracted everyone to do the third) to realize the significance of Mark, the lute player. We see Cromwell as he overhears Mark putting him down, we see him briefly speak to Mark, but if you don’t know the story, I’m not convinced you would remember either appearance as noteworthy. I think it needed a little more spotlight on Mark, a few seconds more time to see him clearly in the overhearing scene.
I thought episode one brilliant in filming and acting, but I will of necessity point out some issues. Let’s separate FLASHBACKS and TIME SHIFTS in our minds. There are some flashbacks, which work well. Holding his dead daughter’s hand, Cromwell flashes back to her tiny finger tracing the illuminated prayer book pictures. Seeing his brutal blacksmith father, he flashes back to the savage beating he suffered as a child.
TIME SHIFTS are a different question, because of the way the novel dots about. The stage play, having two plays of two hours, did straight chronological. The TV series with six hours (or at 65 minutes for episode one, maybe a bit more), is dotting back and forth like the novel. So you have to keep your eyes sharply on the subtitles for “Eight years earlier” and “Four years earlier” and “Eighteen months earlier.” We watched it with our son, who was completely new to the story, and he definitely thought it confusing. To me, the temporal signposts needed to be stronger … fade to black, title, fade to scene … rather than a subtitle. A subtitle is a little “blink and you miss it.” A couple of times he asked, ‘Are we back to “now”’? The fact that mainly Cardinal Wolseley (Jonathan Pryce) is in cardinals’ red, and Cromwell in black doesn’t help the temporal shifting.
Episode two: Eternally Beloved
Or the demise of Cardinal Wolseley, because it takes us from his sickbed to his death. We are still watching the TV in a group of three with one who doesn’t know the story. It’s quite hard going if you don’t, but the time shifts have gone, though I’m sure there will be flashbacks later to this episode.
Dramatically, it was a slow burner, starting gently, gaining strength steadily when we finally got Rylance and Lewis together, in court, at an archery contest, and a defining moment when Cromwell is called in the night to interpret the King’s dream of Prince Arthur. Rylance powerfully portrays a man whose life depends entirely on the whim of a king. His Cromwell is totally intriguing as a character. All that Rylance cautious diffidence goes the morning after the King’s dream, when he is suddenly cheerful (having lived … and having been snogged on his return) and recounts the story of how he made his fortune in Italy – with a con-trick. That makes us think, so that confirms our suspicion that the dream interpretation was manipulation too. From here onward, we can rely on the Rylance-Lewis dynamic. Wolseley was a marvelous performance, and as he goes, Cranmer is introduced.
Even more, the use (apparently) of candles and firelight were masterly, and having seen four Wanamaker Playhouse candlelit plays, the techniques are similar. You would have walked around holding a candelabra to find your way, so naturally it lights your face. The country houses were magnificent, but still Tudor stripped-back. On lighting, the extreme blue light patching on Cromwell’s face as he stands by the stained glass window and hears the tale of Wolseley’s death is stunning. One of the daylight scenes is the court of Anne Boleyn which is beautifully set up. Otherwise they picked some unfortunately dull weather for some scenes – the lottery of the vagaries of the English climate. Costume is strong and I assume well-researched. Crowell is in black, the rich nobles are in browns, but Henry VIII walks through in bright silk cloaks and light green costumes, pulling him totally apart.
The Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill) left watches the archery contest
On signposting the story, I thought it failed to communicate at the sort of populist level (by which I mean appealing to people who haven’t read it) several times. You’d be well into her conversation with Cromwell before you realized the significance of Mary Boleyn, you’d need a good memory to recall that fleeting portrayal of why Percy has a grudge against the Cardinal. Mark Smeaton got his cap flipped in passing, and his name mentioned, but will you remember? Sir Thomas More definitely needed more pointing. All that stuff about being hungry after dinner with him was slipped in quietly and subtlety – enough for a knowledgeable watchers to smile, but not enough for a new one. The vital masque of courtly lords lampooning the cardinal is over in seconds, right at the end, though it is so significant that I guess we’ll see it again in flashbacks in episodes 5 and 6. The masque is the one and only place where the stage play excelled over the book and audio – in the theatre, after spending so much money on the scene and its costumes, they had to give it sufficient stage time, which meant it stuck in more detail in the memory later.
The archery contest. Cromwell takes win, Henry VIII in green watches
Checking with our viewer without knowledge confirms my impression. It probably needed just five minutes more overall to highlight characters, focus our attention on them. Maybe it’s the ELT scriptwriter in me wanting to make sure viewers know who is talking when they begin a conversation, not two-thirds of the way through it. People might take the mickey, but the odd “Mary are you well …’ or ‘Sir Thomas, greetings …’ wouldn’t come amiss at the start of conversations. The scene where Cromwell is woken and summoned to the King could have been ten or fifteen seconds longer and focussed a tad more on the possibility that armed men in the night were there to escort you to the tower. Of course Rylance’s face and stature tell us the whole story, but we did know the plot.
This time I noticed how the music was careful to keep to period instruments … a lute, a violin, a harpsichord, and keep it to single players or small ensembles.
Still, if you have read the book and heard the audio, this towering production is perfect. The last line resonated clearly.
Episode 3 Anna Regina
Just before this was shown, the Catholic bishops of Shrewsbury and Plymouth weighed in to the debate with the mind-boggling statement that it was “anti-Catholic” especially in its portrayal of Thomas More (who was beatified in 1886). As the Mantel story shows, More had heretics imprisoned and had six burned at the stake. Historical record. I find it astonishing that they are shocked that a drama about the reformation is “anti-Catholic.” This was an era when popes were political rulers, cardinals had mistresses and heretics were being burned. There was fear (as shown in the drama) about possessing an English or German translation of the bible. That could get you burned alive. The Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1478 (Inquisitions had been part of the church since 1100). Thousands of Jews were killed or forcibly converted. Surely even the most committed Catholic can’t defend the church as it was in 1530?
More of concern to the producers will be the audience drop from 3.9 million for episode 1 to 2.9 million for episode 2. The Daily Mail says “It has drawn rave reviews but baffled some viewers with its complicated plot.” It is harder than Eastenders, but I still think an extra five minutes an episode would have clarified it considerably.
Thomas Cromwell & Anne Boleyn
In Episode 3, Mark Rylance is really weaving his magic. Our test viewer, who hasn’t read, heard or seen the story is now locked in to the Rylance understated power observation. As I predicted they are now marking the ones who lampooned the cardinal with flashbacks. Clare Foy as Anne is getting room to show her power. Sir Thomas More opens the episode watching a heretic tortured. Cromwell’s fantasy of touching Anne is one bit I didn’t recall. I thought Crowell’s magnetism for women (sister-in-law, Mary Boleyn, Anne, Jane Seymour) generally “bigger” than the book.
This is the marriage and pregnancy episode. It opens with the Cromwell interview with the rejected Queen Katherine and Princess Mary. It’s too short and enigmatic compared to the book, especially in Cromwell’s concern for the fainting Mary. It’s also a quiet episode for Henry VIII. I thought they also cut one of the ultimate scenes (Cromwell threatening Percy) too short. It was still chillingly brilliant, but it was one of the most memorable bits of the novel and audio book and play.
I continue to think that it needs five or ten minutes more an episode without adding more plot. Juust lingering a little more on what they already have.
Episode 4 The Devil’s Spit
Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) and Anne Boleyn (Clare Foy)
There’s a line where languorous subtlety becomes labored and this episode crossed it. Based on the trials of Elizabeth Bartlett and Thomas More (Anton Lesser), it moved at snail’s pace. Thinking of the light and shade in the novel, this was all shade and no light. The performance by Mark Rylance is a masterclass in glances and twitches: close up film acting at its very best, just watch his fever of the last five minutes, but overall pace and drama fly right out of the window. Anton Lesser as Thomas More matches him.
Thomas More (Anton Lesser)
Again signposting is too light. Lady Rochford is a vital character and the script didn’t allow her to be gossipy enough. She’s amusing light relief in the books, sparky too, which she was here, but for far too short a time.
Mark, the lute player, gets his usual two seconds of screen time with an aside. This guy will be important! Mark him!
The last ten seconds where Jane appears in the background for a mere second is subtlety gone mad.
Overall, it’s way way too slow. You can’t afford to let the pace drop that dramatically in a series. Given that they’re compressing two long books into a relatively short series, they lingered too long on More’s trial and refusal to accept the marriage to Anne. I think they blew it for the popular audience in this one. Not acting, but script and direction. Frankly, I was bored.
I’m losing patience.
I thought on Episode 4 that they’d lost the plot, and episode 5 confirmed it. There are two superb and exciting scenes in the novel due for this episode. First is where Anne Boleyn’s bedroom catches fire because “someone” left a candle burning when exiting her bed. No drama at all – but this is where film and SFX should be hugely exciting. The heroine’s four poster is on fire? She’s undressed? (not here) Great film. Missed. Lady Rochford’s hint that a person unknown, i.e. a man, left the candle alight, was well done. They just skipped Anne’s fear that it was an attempt on her life.
Second is where King Henry VIII is knocked out in a joust at a tournament, everyone thinks him dead, and the Norfolks and Suffolks are already vying for power, but Cromwell resuscitates him with blows to the heart. This is even done pretty well in the otherwise weak stage play. This is a long and wonderful scene in the book. We are reminded that all these nobles are descendants of kings. The secession is fluid. All are vying for power. The king has expired! Who’s next? Cromwell, who they hate, is thumping an anointed monarch on the chest! What we got here wasn’t dramatic enough for an average episode of Casualty.
Both BIG scenes were thrown away. Far too little screen time or effort devoted to the sort of dramatic moments that film should do better than play or novel. You have to make decisions that highlight the medium. The script decisions here were SO wrong.
While Rylance’s power continues to intrigue, the adaptation is completely failing to do the novel justice at this point.
Master of Phantoms
Anne Boleyn (Clare Foy) on the scaffold
I got hot under the collar right at the start. Yes, Cromwell’s dream sequence was an issue, but far more importantly, Cromwell is NOT there observing the scene in Anne’s court where she teases Mark Smeaton. Crucial, but it needs to be framed as a report by Lady Rochford, rather than just entered into, then Lady Rochford justifying it by appearing at the end talking to Cromwell. The directorial key was staying tight to Cromwell’s view and here they abandoned it. And I still think Mark Smeaton’s importance needed more signposting in episodes 1 to 5.
It is the fabulous part of the novel, where Cromwell turns to settling scores, thus setting himself up for whatever Ms. Mantel (within the constraints of history) does with the third book. Judging by the post-Episode 6 interview with Kominsky and Rylance, they’re committed to do it.
The last embrace between the King who has had his way and Cromwell is great acting by both.
Most interesting was the BBC 4 interview with Peter Kominsky and Mark Rylance after Episode 6 of Wolf Hall. They discussed the era, Thomas Cromwell v Sir Thomas More, Protestant v Catholic, Henry VIII v Rome. Kominsky pointed out that people were beheaded, burnt at the stake, hung, drawn and quartered over what, 500 years later, appear as tiny, insignificant arguments over minor issues of religious interpretation. Kominsky drew the obvious parallel with the Middle East today, pointing out a religion 500 years younger than Christianity going through the same struggles. When the box set appears next Monday, I hope the interview is appended!
MARK RYLANCE ON THIS BLOG:
Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins
Farinelli & The King, by Claire Van Kampen, Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015
Richard III – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Richard III
Twelfth Night – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Olivia
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, West End
La Bête by David Hirson, West End, 2010