Molly Jamieson reviews the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed novels
Now that the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s bestselling 2009 Thomas Cromwell series has drawn to a close, it’s time for you to hear why you should have been watching Wolf Hall from the start, and why you should perhaps read the books first.
The six-episode mini-series covers the first two books of Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, with the third instalment yet to be released. Mantel’s heavily-biased third person narrative style situates us not quite in his head but gives the feeling of being his intimate friend, going everywhere with him, never leaving his side, lingering in private moments, but still not privy to any thoughts he does not wish to reveal.
This is perhaps too much to ask from a mini-series where at least half of the budget must have been claimed by the costume department. Although at times the script cannot perfectly capture the atmosphere of Mantel’s prose, the central performance from Mark Rylance brings to the audience that same feeling of intimacy and isolation. Cromwell’s manipulations and genius are exquisitely displayed by Rylance’s masterful and understated portrayal.
What Rylance lacks in height and build (Cromwell having been famously brutish and bulky in appearance) he makes up for in his calm, measured demeanour. It is often noticeable that the esteemed theatre actor appears to be the only one who doesn’t realise he is in a period drama. Contentious council scenes where insults are exchanged don’t climax with hands slamming on tables and wails of honour impugned. Rylance’s Cromwell hears that his dead wife and children are burning in hell and shrugs, a small smile perhaps. Cromwell is not prone to rash anger.
Although the adaptation from a total of 1000 pages of material to six hour-long episodes might have seemed like the most approachable format, what has inevitably suffered is the characterisation and the script. From a plot based on clever, manipulative conversations has emerged a story defined only by recognisable historical events – the death of Cardinal Wolsey, the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, the death of Thomas More. From a portrayal of Anne Boleyn as a fiercely and frighteningly intelligent, seductive woman, we have a brat with no social awareness whose inner personality is shown to us not through her actions or words but through what is said about her – show, don’t tell, anyone? Claire Foy’s performance in this role is practically faultless, but she is sadly let down by the rushed pacing.
What the adaptation does retain is the slow build of tension, at court, between friends and political enemies. The quiet, long-drawn falls from grace of major historical figures, such as Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More, are borne out with a sense of exhausting duration. The costumes were specially handmade for the series, and Henry’s outfits alone must have been the products of hours of labour by devoted seamstresses. It is also impossible to fault the locations, the set design, or the filming style of cutting between meaningful stares from one silent dignitary to another. With Mark Rylance at the centre of this series, it has a strong foundation to fall back on even in its weaker moments.
Image Reference: Image Still: BBC