Adapting not one, but two Booker winning novels is no easy task, but judging from this opening episode, the Beeb could well have a classic on their hands.
Things move swiftly in the world of Wolf Hall. It’s 1529, and Lords Norfolk and Suffolk ride to meet the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to demand he relinquish his position. A quiet man in black buys the Cardinal a day’s reprieve. We then learn how the Cardinal came to lose his way, and how Thomas Cromwell came to be the man stood next to him.
Based on the novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, this six part series follows a fictionalised account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmiths son from Putney who came to be advisor to King Henry VIII himself. While not told in the first person, the novels closely follow Cromwell’s thoughts and memories. I loved the books. They felt immediate and alive, and conveyed Cromwell’s intelligence and humanity very well. Historical Cromwell has his fair share of critics – one historian referred to him as Alistair Campbell with an axe – and he certainly comes across as a man you wouldn’t like to upset. But above all else he is clever. His mind is constantly at work, dissecting the world and people around him, drawing on his diverse experiences. I wondered how a TV series could convey this successfully.
Dialogue, mostly. Cromwell is witty, and gives us constant reminders of the fact he is an outsider. He asks yokels for nutmeg and saffron, makes a subtle dig at Anne to her bustier sister, and asks goodly Thomas Moore if his recent appointment to Lord Chancellor was a ‘fucking accident?’ He even talks down the king with a particularly deft combination of honesty and flattery, ‘Your majesty can form your own opinions.’
Not that it doesn’t look good. It’s every bit as beautiful you’d expect from a BBC drama. The costumes and set design were excellent, and with the naturalistic lighting, served to pull you into the world brilliantly. The dialogue is easy to follow, almost entirely in modern English. This maybe a fictionalised account of historical events, but it still holds a mirror to our own world. Nothing changes. Yet there were beautiful, almost lyrical moments that really add to the emotional punch of the programme- the image of little Grace walking away from us in her angel wings would have touched harder hearts than mine.
Performances were all superb, genuinely no weak links, which is remarkable for a cast this size. Bernard Hill was perfect as limited and ill-tempered Norfolk, a medieval man in an early Renaissance world. ‘God damn it, Cromwell. Why are you such a- person? It’s not like you can afford to be…’ Class concerns abound here -Boleyn bristles at the reminder that his ancestors were in trade, and Wolsey is delighted to finally meet someone of more humble beginnings than himself. Jonathan Pryce was great – not a physical match for the well-fed Wolsey, but brilliantly displaying the ingenuity and wits that saw a butchers’ boy rise to Cardinal and Lord Chancellor both. Not really surprising that he and Cromwell should form such a bond. Damian Lewis makes an excellent King Henry. We don’t see much of him, but then we don’t need to. He looks like a king, and when he finally speaks to Cromwell, he sounds like one as well. ‘I can. I will.’ (This reminded me of Henry IV Part 1, ‘I do. I will.’ – bit of foreshadowing perhaps?)
Also have to mention Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn. Only on screen for about three minutes, but she certainly made her mark. The character of Anne Boleyn has been represented and reimagined so many times, I worried she might come across as an awkward amalgam of all those earlier versions. But, it felt fresh. And it certainly bodes well for further entertaining exchanges with Cromwell. She likes a fight, does Anne. And yet you can’t help but worry for her. Because for all her artifice and controlled rage, you do get the sense that Anne is one of the few characters to explicitly state her intentions. Wolsey’s destruction was just a fortunate by product- it’s a crown she wants. And it seems that the only people who do well in this world are the ones that keep their cards close to their chest.
And so we come to Cromwell. Mark Rylance is too old and too slight to be Cromwell. And yet, having seen him here, I honestly can’t imagine anyone else in the part. The slightly awkward way he removes his hat, the way his faces shows everything and nothing, and the voice most of all- perfectly correct English, yet somehow suggestive of low birth and foreign travels, gruff and measured at the same time. It was flawless.
If I’m honest, the jumps in time could have been more deftly managed. If I hadn’t read the books, I think I would have been confused as to exactly when we were. Probably a consequence of trying to do so much in so short a time, as well as the nature of the source material, but I can’t help but feel it could have been handled better. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but I wonder how non-readers got on.
Still, that’s my only grumble. Cannot praise this highly enough. I’m just glad the rest of the series goes out the day after Broadchurch, or I really would be torn.
So, what did you think? Interesting to me that, while the series will cover the first two novels, Mantel is still working on the third and final book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Should the showrunners have waited until this book is finished, and then have done a definitive series? As a historical drama, we already know (or can easily find out) the eventual fate the real-life characters depicted here. Does this impact how you react as a viewer, or does it not matter? Do let me know.