You’ve either read it or you haven’t. Or, perhaps more likely, you’ve started to read it and never quite managed to finish. But now that Wolf Hall has arrived on the BBC, the question isn’t “Have you read it?” but “Can it work on TV?”
Hilary Mantel’s novel is a striking piece of work, but one that you can hardly imagine being brought to the screen. Written in a deliberately awkward manner, it turns her protagonist (Thomas Cromwell) into a pronoun(“he”) and the past into the present – literally. Things unfold in an ongoing tense that gives history an immediacy usually lacking from historical fiction.
The TV version of Wolf Hall’s triumph is to follow Mantel’s principle almost to the letter. The flashbacks and wayward structure are recognisable, introducing us to Cromwell’s wife and children, as well as revealing how he got the job as a servant to Cardinal Wolsey. Jonathan Pryce is wonderful as the religious man whose concern has always been his own power rather than God’s, plummy yet frail, kind yet calculating, influential but now – after Henry VIII’s years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon without a son – out of favour with the King. If the cardinal can’t fix it for him to divorce her for the more fruitful loins of Anne Boleyn, what purpose does he serve?
Cromwell never stops being loyal to Wolsey, tucking him in at bedtime and defending him at dinner tables surrounded by enemies. Why? A cutaway to his job interview, where he impresses Wolsey with a card trick learned during his days on the dock, makes it clear how smart Thomas is. That juxtaposition of political brains and humble beginnings appears to be what intrigues his boss – and it’s exactly what makes Wolf Hall such a good story to read or watch. How did Cromwell rise from a Blacksmith’s boy to the Earl of Essex, from a nobody to the king’s right-hand man?
Adapted by Peter Straughan, who has condensed Hilary’s 1,000 odd pages of two hefty novels into six hour-long episodes, you would half expect the result to be clunky, heavy on the exposition, light on the nuance, but Straughan plays things as slowly as he can get away with, while still cutting through Mantel’s prose. Screws tighten and plots are laid, but quietly: the result is as understated as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and grips like a House of Tudor Cards.
Peter Kosminsky shoots events like it’s modern day Washington, relying on handheld cameras to capture things quickly and with candour. Even braver than that, he relies on natural lighting for many scenes, leaving our characters talking and sitting down in Barry Lyndon-esque candlelight. It’s a move that leaves you straining at times to see what’s going on, but one that also strips all pageantry out of the usual costume drama cliches. This is the visual equivalent of Mansel’s distracting present tense, like watching A Man for All Seasons shot by Michael Mann.
At the heart of the darkness is Mark Rylance, who is excellent as the patient Cromwell, his mouth twitching a smile as his hands move with sleight. But he never goes the full Frank Underwood, instead delivering his messages with a sad look in his eyes. It’s telling that his first exchange on camera is whispered rather than shouted – and even more telling that he says it while blending in with the gloomy background. Despite Cromwell appearing in virtually every single frame, Kosminsky has a knack for keeping him to the side, letting us see things from his perspective, while still positioning Cromwell as that unseen “he”, the guy who waits in the wings for his time to come.
Compared to the intimidating Damien Lewis as the King, a snooty Mark Gatiss as Wolsey’s secretary Stephen Gardiner and a fun Claire Foy as the feisty Anne Boleyn, Rylance almost seems to have walked in from another show, his clothes less impressive, his hair poorly kempt. But that’s just how Mantel’s hero (villain?) is in her story: a real man brought to grubby life from the colourful pages of history. Can Wolf Hall work on TV? If the surprisingly gripping Episode 1 is anything to go by, yes it can. In fact, it leaves you asking another question: where did I put my copy of that book?
Wolf Hall is available on BBC iPlayer until 15th January 2018.
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Photo: BBC/Company Productions Ltd