Wolf Hall review – 'event television: sumptuous, intelligent and serious'

The Hilary Mantel adaptation is sumptuous, intelligent, event television. Now we’re going to have to read the novels

Wolf Hall recap: episode one – a clash of artistries to relish

Small confession: I haven’t read it. Them, haven’t read them, because the BBC’s feverishly anticipated six-part series is adapted from the first two-thirds of Hilary Mantel’s incomplete trilogy of historical novels. They’re there weighing down the bookshelf, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, unread, two big slabs of guilt (or executioners blocks, they’d serve that purpose well). But I’ve been scared, by their massiveness, the weight of history. Perhaps you have too?

Now that Peter Straughan has condensed them for television, maybe we’re off the hook. This is TV tailor-made for a traditional Guardian reader (drama, history, fiction, Mantel, double Booker, BBC, costumes, proper cast, proper everything). With Damian Lewis – Homeland’s Brody – as Henry VIII (not unlike, though prettier, certainly trimmer, than Hans Holbein the Younger’s Henry). Chris Bryant, shadow culture minister, won’t like that: another public schoolboy with a plum part. What does an old Etonian know about power and privilege, and living by the Thames?

Whatever, Lewis is excellent, with heaps of kingly swagger, utterly convincing, though not centre stage this time. That, of course, is taken by Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance: University School of Milwaukee, private too, though he may not have paid as his father was a teacher. Boo all the same).

Cromwell had no such early leg up in life and that’s a big part of the allure here. He was the son of a Putney blacksmith, brewer, bully, a man with a hell of a lot to answer for, Dr Freud. It’s not just Chris Bryant MP who’s saying yay; everyone loves the story of low birth triumphing against the odds, and against the toffs, a boy done good. Done good? Done bad? Done seriously significant anyway, says Mantel, and this adaptation.

The nearest likeness from recent times? Peter Mandelson, in his pomp, circa 1999? Pah! Mandy may have had the ambition, the rise, and the shadowiness, but no one’s ever going to award him this kind of nation-shaping credit. Also, these days, the fall that inevitably follows the rise is less spectacular; you lose your job (twice sometimes), and your reputation, not your actual head on the actual executioner’s block.

Is it a problem that you know exactly where this is (be)heading? Not at all, when it’s done this well. Everyone, even me, is more or less familiar with the big backdrop: Henry – no-sons – the Eighth, Catherine of A, Anne B, the man from the Vatican he say no, a break, and Reformation, for the nation. Plus a busy old time for the hoodie with the axe down the Tower. But that is just background. In the foreground is a study of power and politics. And a portrait of one man, freshly painted, more sympathetically than before (also Rylance’s Cromwell is prettier than Holbein’s).

Yes there’s still a darkness there – literally too, Cromwell lurks about in the shadows (it’s all very shadowy, as it must have been in the 16th century) – and all that ambition. But there are more admirable qualities too. His loyalty to Wolsey is unflinching and touching, even after the cardinal’s fall from grace. At home also, Cromwell is an attentive husband, and a lovely father to his daughters. Enlightened too, a reformer in every way, he even sees his elder daughter Anne as a potential Lord Mayor of London. Except she dies, of sweating sickness, along with her sister and her mother. The love and gentleness is ripped from Cromwell’s life, and behind the steel the sadness in his eyes is almost unbearable to watch.

Mark Rylance is hypnotic, understated but totally screen-owning. There are fine performances wherever you look – Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey, Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn, a whole host of other big names playing to the event. Which this is, event television, sumptuous, intelligent and serious, meticulous in the detail, but not humourless or po-faced. History, as seen by a novelist with an eye and an ear for a human story and a character, then condensed with sensitivity and brought back to life again for the small screen.

And actually it might be that I – you too possibly – am not off the hook, that big book hook. Because instead of rendering Mantel’s novels redundant, it’s done pretty much the opposite.

The real deals, uncondensed, are no less weighty, but suddenly they’re looking less scary, more approachable, more essential even. I’m not certain I will, but you never know …


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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