The much-anticipated, no-expense-spared BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s multi-award-winning books about King Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell hit the screens this week and achieved one of the largest audience figures for a new drama on the channel in a decade, together with near-unanimous praise from the critics.
It was good to be sure, but for myself I have to say I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t even better, twisted and ungrateful though that sounds. I loved Mantel’s original book after which the series is named (the latter half of the six-episode run will be based on the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies) and found it one of the best books I’d ever read, whereas this all-star screen version is … merely excellent television.
Some of the things that just take the final edge off this screen adaptation actually stem from the original source novel. Mantel goes to huge lengths to be faithful to the historical record in her book even when it means dozens of characters drifting in and out of the narrative, and many of them called either Thomas or Henry. You can handle this rather better on the printed page than on screen, because as a reader you can stop and flip back a few pages to remind yourself who someone is, or refer to a list of dramatis personae if there is one. You can’t do that on TV or film and the screenwriter has to walk a particularly acute line between not flooding the viewer with too much exposition dumping, while at the same time finding a way to incorporate enough information so that you know who’s talking at any given time – and doing it subtly so that it doesn’t bog down the pace, while memorably enough that people won’t forget the necessary information five minute later. As good as Peter Straughan is at finding creative ways of doing this (and he really is), the sheer volume of detail that needs to be imparted makes this a tough watch even for someone who knows the period well or who like me is already familiar with the novel.
The other thing that Mantel did in the novel was to move around in time almost as freely as the characters galloped between locations. The effect in the novel became almost like a hallucinatory fever dream in which you’d read several pages before realising that you were in a completely different period of the story to the one you’d thought while you’d been reading it. It was an audacious and risky approach even for someone of Mantel’s superlative talents, and again you can get away with this better on the page than on screen where you really need some crucial visual indicators to indicate the transition. In the first episode some of these were achieved by (too) subtle on-screen captions but many others were left to small touches such as the length of Cardinal Wolsey’s hair and the robustness of his gait for us to tell at which point of the story we had entered.
Other issues that arise from an adaptation such as this are not from the book but from the fact that we’re now working in a visual medium for the first time. Director Peter Kosminsky goes for a naturalistic effect, shooting the scenes in authentic period locations and using only in-shot light sources such as flickering candles and torches to beautiful effect. To this he adds handheld camera work to heighten the sense that we are really there, watching events unfurl in real time over people’s shoulders. Together with the political machinations on display and the surprising amount of wry humour, the overall effect is something long the likes of a Tudor The Thick of It. But other aspects don’t necessarily align with this ambition: the dialogue is also reasonably authentic to the era, but that starts to make it sound very stage-bound – like a Shakespeare play or one of those 1940s historical movies that don’t stand up so well to modern eyes; and then when a character like King Henry strides in dressed in the sort of garb that we’re familiar with from many portraits and other screen versions of the tale and suddenly we’re reminded that this is actually a very theatrical production production at odds with its hoped-for modern sensibility. You can get around this on the printed page because the images are being created directly inside the readers’ minds, immersing them in the detail and short-circuiting any real life distractions in the process; but the minute you make the ideas into actual pictures you have no choice but nail down the reality of the scene and thereby make it much easier to critique.
Happily, the one area where there can be no quibble however is in the cast. If you’d read the book and sat down to name your perfect all-star cast regardless of money, then I dare say that it still wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as the line-up they actually got. The starring role of Cromwell himself goes to Mark Rylance, and while he wouldn’t have been my first choice for the part (Mantel describes Cromwell as having the face of a thug or a murderer) he proves absolutely perfect in the way he performs the role, which requires him to be utterly inscrutable to those around him while still being accessible enough for the audience at home to identify with him sufficiently to want to see what becomes of him over the six episodes.
King Henry appears only toward the end of the first episode and in a scene depicting the first face-to-face meeting between the sovereign and Cromwell; Damian Lewis is ideal casting, although in this initial brief meeting at least he seems to be working overtime to put some distance between his rather quiet, thoughtful portrayal and the usual larger-than-life blustering figure full of regal arrogance that we tend to see on screen. However the major figure in the first episode (other than Cromwell himself) is Cardinal Wolsey played by Jonathan Pryce, and we jump around between various points in his late career as Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor. When Cromwell is initially taken into his employ, Wolsey is the most powerful figure in the land save for the King himself; then he badly misjudges the impact of Lady Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) in the Royal court and has to engage in desperate and ultimately unsuccessful measures to secure Henry an annulment from the Pope in Rome for his marriage to Queen Katherine (Joanne Whalley). When that doesn’t work, Wolsey’s downfall is swift and utter, meaning that Pryce has to run the gamut from high hubris to the wreckage of destitution in his portrayal.
The rest of the production is similarly carelessly strewn with star names: Mark Gatiss is scene-stealingly repellent as Cromwell’s arch foe Stephen Gardiner for example and Bernard Hill is typically wonderful at the Duke of Norfolk; there are also brief but memorable parts for veteran stars Richard Dillane, David Robb, Anton Lesser, Mathieu Amalric, Mary Jo Randle, Christopher Fairbank and James Laurenson as well as up-and-coming young stars such as Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Lloyd and Jessica Raine. There comes a point that – when Lady Anne’s pampered dog runs up to Cromwell while he’s slyly sizing up the woman herself – you’re convinced that the canine performer must also have a string of starring screen credits to its name as long as your arm.
Certainly no weakness to be found in the acting, then, nor in the production design which is as immaculate as you would expect from the BBC. And the writing is as good as you could hope for, if inevitably just overshadowed slightly by the even greater genius of Hilary Mantel as an author. And yet for all this excellence on display, the opening episode felt just a little too brittle and fragile – an icy perfection intended to be admired rather than felt. The pace was a little slow (doubtless to allow the characters and plot to sink in) and there was an odd lack of a sense of jeopardy or urgency to the episode even allowing for the timey-wimey jumping around. Despite the in-your-face handheld camerawork I didn’t really feel that I got particularly close to any of the characters in the first episode – not even the emotional impact of the scenes when the sweating fever takes the lives of several characters close to Cromwell, a moment that is utterly heart-rending and devastating in the book.
I am, I’m sure, being too critical of the TV adaptation – for the overwhelming part it does an impressive job, and in truth it’s unfair to pick at it based on my love of the book. It’s especially unfair to be too harsh about the first episode which has a huge load on its shoulders just to establish the world, the characters and the plot that will henceforth be developed over the next month and a half. And even if I am being too harsh about Wolf Hall I still have no hesitation in rating it as at least a solid “not to be missed” four stars and remain entirely open to it building to still greater heights as the series progresses. If this turns out to the be the drama of the year – or indeed even the decade – then I wouldn’t be the least surprised. It’s not quite there for me just yet to declare it a work of genius, but time may very well prove me to be a Doubting Thomas.
Wolf Hall continues on BBC2 on Wednesdays at 9pm, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 2 2015.