Review: Wolf Hall

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

Genre: Historical drama

Venue: TV

Website: Wolf Hall 

Low Down
Graham gives his verdict on the BBC´s six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel´s two bestselling novel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, starring Damien Lewis, written by Peter Straughan and directed by Peter Kosminsky

Because most of us live through television, sometimes it seems that the Second World War never ended and that the Tudors still reign. Of course, the appeal of both is that they’re damn’ good stories, capable of sustaining and surviving endless reinvention. Whether they will eventually become mythical, like Robin Hood and King Arthur and Clause IV, remains to be seen. However good the current incarnations may be, you know there will be others.

So one cannot allow oneself to get too worked up about Wolf Hall, as far as its historical accuracy and depictions go. More as conniving hypocrite? Fine. Wolsey as benign mentor? Alright. Cromwell as – what? Even after an hour with him present in every scene, it’s difficult to say. To be exceptionally generous, Wolf Hall looks like a slow burn, but with only five more episodes to play, as opposed to an American  21 or even 12, it really isn’t leaving itself a lot of time.

I felt a ripple of disquiet, a hint of foreboding, an unmistakeable niggle, when screenwriter Peter Straughan’s name came up on the opening credits, but it was eclipsed by that of director Peter Kozminsky, who has an excellent rep for writing and directing hard-hitting, timely and controversial dramas (though I admit to not having seen any of them since his first, Shoot to Kill, in 1990). And as the drama – such as it was – crept across a tundra of meaningful glances, held reaction shots and three-line scenes, the disquiet returned. I hadn’t seen anything this undernourished since the awful film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This morning I looked up the name and groaned: yes, this is indeed the same Peter Straughan who with Bridget O’Connor took bright-burning dialogue from Le Carre’s novel and carefully stifled it until not a spark remained.

Like many people who haven’t seen the film, I’ve heard the story of the famous final shot of Queen Christina, in which Greta Garbo was advised to think of nothing and keep her face perfectly blank, so that as the camera came in for the close-up, the audience could project whatever emotion seemed right to them onto that perfect visage. Shekhar Kapur did something similar – arguably went one further –  with Cate Blanchett in the closing scene of Elizabeth. But, by and large, we require actors to talk, or at the very least emote, in order for us to know what their characters are thinking. There are many things wrong with the ham-and-cheese fest of Gladiator, for instance, but one of the things it has going for it are speeches: Crowe rallying his troops, Oliver Reed on the Colosseum, Phoenix being merciful. By far and away the best thing about Skyfall was Silva’s entrance speech.

Mark Kermode has said (while praising Zac Efron) that actors used to be able to dance and sing and act, and they have become people who simply buy neurontin us pharmacy stand and talk. Now in the likes of Wolf Hall they have become people who simply stand and look, while the camera watches them. Part of this has to be on Kozminsky’s shoulders, but in fairness he has been given a skeleton to clothe by Straughan.

Actually, the clothing was one of the best things about Wolf Hall. Costume, sets, props – I couldn’t help but think that yes, this is what a sixteenth century house must have looked like. Which was just as well, as we were given plenty of time to look at it. When there is more going on at the edges of the screen than in the middle, you know there’s a problem.

The talented cast did what they could with the little they had. The story seemed in danger of coming alive when Cromwell and More confronted each other down the length of a dining table – yes, I’m sorry to report that conflict really is at the heart of drama. Anton Lesser as More was excellent, but Straughan, with his unerring ability to undermine his characters and keep any scene from developing, had him leave after a few brief exchanges. Jonathan Pryce was given one note to play and played it admirably, making you almost forget Orson Welles (Wolsey will never escape that portrayal, though it is difficult to feel sorry for him); Rylance was, frankly, as weird as one expects him to be, so probably well cast. One can imagine Cromwell being a master at concealing his thoughts from the people around him, but for the most part he managed to conceal them from the audience as well. I have hopes for Damian Lewis as Henry: he looked magnificent as the Renaissance prince; he knows how to be still, and let others (and the viewers) come to him rather than reach out; he has the right air of danger. I wish he hadn’t glanced down, as it sounded the wrong note of uncertainty; I doubt Henry lowered his gaze in front of anyone.

The Straughan-hold on the dialogue dealt with, I have a small beef with minor cast members, many of whom don’t know how to stand, walk or enunciate in a way which carries the illusion, a phenomenon I first noticed with Anna Friel in Our Mutual Friend (1998). As good as her acting was, she was incapable of standing up straight. No carriage, no deportment, which her character would certainly have had drilled into her. Wolf Hall contained one scene in particular in which Rylance walked across a courtyard flanked by two sauntering aides, and they just looked like three blokes in costume.

It’s not that the BBC can’t do this stuff anymore: Parade’s End was as good as any drama I have ever seen on TV. It had the acting talent, the set design and props were wonderful, the direction and editing were inventive and involving. The shot in the mist – and if you saw it, you know the one I mean – was an instant classic. Here was something to rival the good old days of I Claudius and Elizabeth R, but without the wobbly sets and declaiming. But above all it had a script by Tom Stoppard, who – well, is Tom Stoppard. Enough, as it were, said.


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Graham Paterson 8 Articles
Graham Paterson was born in Scotland and is still growing up there. He was educated in England and has never quite got over it. There is no known liberal cause at which his knee does not twitch. He has a favourite word in Scots, which we cannot print.

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