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Thursday 22 January 2015

Review of Episode 1 "Wolf Hall"

Last night saw the first episode of “Wolf Hall”. This historical drama made authenticity part of its marketing and a lot of historians were involved in the process to bring Hilary Mantel’s two novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bringing up the Bodies” to the small screen. When it comes to period fiction, the Tudors have received the lions share, especially during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. However, Hilary Mantel’s work definitely qualifies as an original take on the era in many respects. She chooses to view her tale through the eyes of an individual who is nearly always depicted as a Machiavellian villain: Sir Thomas Cromwell. However, don’t expect a sneering Francis Urquhart type politician who wins his audience over by revelling in his cunning and cleverness. Mantel’s  Cromwell is a truly sympathetic character. By taking this highly unconventional tactic, we are provided with a genuinely different perspective on the Tudor court, its various characters and the politics of Henry VIII. The term “game-changer” has become a buzzword in the promotion of this current golden age of drama, often attributed to US series like “True Detectives”, however, with this interpretation of Tudor life I believe it could be applied with confidence.

The first episode began, in typically melodramatic fashion, with a written explanation of what has happened. As a review in “The Guardian” pointed out, this sort of thing is completely out of sync with Hilary Mantel’s style of storytelling. I have yet to read “Wolf Hall” or “Bringing up the Bodies”, but almost feel like I had before I began watching the new BBC2 series. Readers of Mantel’s work will tell you that this sort of simplistic approach is in direct opposition to the way “Wolf Hall” and its sequel work in their narrative. Besides taking a totally fresh view on Cromwell, which has been readily taken up by historian Tracy Borman in her biography of the man, “Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant”, what appeals to a lot of Mantel’s fans is the way he totally engrosses the bewildered reader. You earn your knowledge of the events that surround the main characters, bit by bit, in a naturalistic fashion as the story progresses. But, as the same review states, TV does not afford us that luxury. For the scope of the storyline, Peter Kosminsky does well to use the devices at his disposal, such as flashbacks and the aforementioned title cards.
Nevertheless, what I noticed was that such devices might have softened and helped ease in the viewer, but this was no mainstream sell-out. True to the word of its publicity, “Wolf Hall” is a universe apart from sex, violence and fast-paced action of “The Tudors”. Suffice to say it is in a totally different league when it comes to its historical authenticity. Again, a big part of its marketing was the meticulous nature of its research and how heavily consulted historians have been throughout its development. 

Unfortunately because of its hard emphasis in this direction, any slight anachronisms or outright historical faux pas are immediately highlighted. Besides the first episode featuring a building that was built during Elizabeth’s reign, historians really had to scrape around for a criticism. Their biggest find? Jane Seymour wasn’t as attractive as Kate Phillips who plays her in the series. Before we get into the rather silly argument about what is and what is not attractive, which The Mail Online embarrassingly does in its report, this is all based purely on what we see in an oil painting.
Meticulous work has gone into trying to create clothes, furnishings and various other physical things in the drama authentic. Hilary Mantel famously insisted on the cast having white teeth due to the lack of sugar at the time. However, I think it is pretty absurd to think that any of the actors should be cast due to how much they physically resembled the characters they are portraying.  There are certain things that artists should feel assured that their audience will happily accept without thought and one them is the exact replication of an historical characters’ physical features. If we are to really go along these tedious of pedantry, then none of the cast are exact matches for their respective oil paintings. As Peter Kosminsky rightly said to historian Lucy Worsley when she challenged him on his choice of actress, “I picked her because of her acting, not because of her forehead”. 

However, few can really find fault with the remarkable cast if we are going by the first episode. Jonathan Price is as reliable as ever as Cardinal Wolsey. Again, Wolsey, is often portrayed as a pompous and ambitious man, one of the villains in the Tudor story, but not this time. As Cromwell’s employer, we see a man who is jaded and clever, keen to hold onto his power, but religiously tolerant and loyal to his king. The relationship between the two men is more believable than the general plot that sees them both battling to win the king’s favour. Cromwell, as portrayed by Mark Rylance, is a fellow survivor at Wolsey’s side. As the cardinal fails to convince the pope that Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon needs to be annulled, signalling his downfall, we can see Cromwell learning from his master’s mistakes whilst doing his best to protect him. Again, a lot of that made sense with Cromwell always being the wily politician with a background as a successful and shrewd lawyer – a point even his critics would not contend – understood that Wolsey’s existence power gave protection to his fellow Protestants. 

Mark Gatiss never seems to be out of work. Again, he’s a versatile and talented actor, and he has proven his worth as a creative with a variety of very entertaining and critically acclaimed projects. His place here as Cromwell’s superior, the snobbish Stephen Gardiner, helps reinforce the underlying issue regarding the enmity many felt against Wolsey and Cromwell’s lowly beginnings. It is an issue that stacks up the argument for Mantel and Borman make to view the man in a more sympathetic light.

Since "The Other Boleyn Girl" novel got everyone's attention, I guess there is little surprise that the script ensures that Mary Boleyn is mentioned as Henry VIII's first love interest out of the two sisters. The role of the Boleyn family, of course, shows as being a key part of the opposition that meets Wolsey as he tries to appease his king, who starkly defends in private despite being in his displeasure, and reconcile his faith, the Catholic Church. Jane Boleyn even features in the cast. Anne Boleyn, often portrayed as a victim, has had a re-vamp in recent years as a far more feisty and forthright character. Audiences are ready for the cocksure and dislikeable characterization put over in Claire Foy's portrayal. However, are we really ready for an arrogant and scheming Sir Thomas Moore? "A Man for All Seasons" has had a lasting impact on our literary depiction of the Tudor court and seeing Moore as the opportunistic politician that warrants the episodes only expletive uttered by Cromwell is  a definite shock to the system. However, I was sold on the drama and his one scene, sat at a crowded dining table appropriately at the opposite head of the table to Cromwell is perhaps the second-best scene.

The first best scene goes to Cromwell's meeting with Henry VIII, played by Damian Lewis who almost steals the show. Never before have a seen Henry portrayed in such a convincing way. He's not without humour or intelligence. He's a very believable bully with an overbearing athletic/soldier like bearing that sees him tower in his scene with Cromwell, who impresses him with his courage and articulation.
The first episode set the cornerstones in place for the rise and falls that will follow. However, if you are expecting a “Boardwalk Empire” type of half-guessing of the fates of certain characters you can forget it. This is an entirely different beast. Like a play of its era, “Wolf Hall” is confident enough in its content to worry about holding back outcomes. Although there is no forecast of Cromwell’s eventual fate on show, Wolsey gets a veritable countdown on the screen with reminders of how many days before his “fall” (a suitably religious term).

The series is well-scripted and unfolds at a suitable pace. I see it has impressed the critics, but I am dubious about it really sustaining a mainstream audience. The programme is dialogue heavy. There is one scene of brutal violence - a flashback of Cromwell being beaten by his blacksmith father - which is repeated, but there isn't even any sexual tension let alone the explicit scenes we have become accustomed to in other adult period dramas. I really hope that the drama, which has been crafted well through the stage version, will draw enough audiences and be further proof that drama is evolving in the right direction on television. 

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