Cromwellian: Wolf Hall

January 24, 2015 — Leave a comment
Image credit: BBC

Image credit: BBC

Condensing Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies into six hours of television must have been a challenge that required a severe hand as well as a deft one and, after the first episode, we can conclude that Peter Straughan has produced an admirable script. One that marries well with the BBC’s seven million pound budget; both of which, one assumes, were attractive to its commanding cast.

Mark Rylance, as Thomas Cromwell, doesn’t have all that many words with which to work in the first installment, but his silence and stillness, products of a glorious stage career, are the focus of viewer’s intrigue and attention. It is marvelous to watch Jonathan Pryce’s Wolsey and Bernard Hill’s Norfolk bluster and brood around their more considered underling. Claire Foy isn’t the first actress to lend Anne Boleyn more beauty than her portraits’ suggest she deserves, but her portrayal betrays that mix of hauteur and uncertainty – of her place in the world, as well as pronunciation of French – that must’ve characterised any aspiring lady of the age. Damien Lewis as Henry VIII wasn’t as grating as I sometimes find him, and he is a great improvement on the emo Henry seen in the overwrought The Tudors.

The sets are convincingly spartan and the costumes as fine as one of Lucy Worsley’s dressing-up documentaries. The only mild concern I had about the production concerned the extras: not enough of them. There seems to be hardly a soul in England – the population must’ve been about a hundred, if that. I would like to see a bit more hustle and bustle in those courtyards.

A minor note of speculative pedantry: the term ‘machiavellian’ has been flying around the press in conjunction with this series; even supposing that Wolsey and Cromwell were quoting Machiavelli. Possibly they were quoting an obscure text by him, but I rather suspect that because they were discussing princes, people have taken assumed they were quoting The Prince. That classic of statecraft wasn’t properly published until after Wolsey’s death; furthermore, it is addressed to a prince, not his ministers. Machiavelli and Cromwell were contemporaries, it just doesn’t sit well to attribute the methods of the one to the other – let it suffice that they were both extraordinary manipulators of power.

Image credit: HBO

Image credit: HBO

Girls (HBO/Sky Atlantic) has returned for a fourth exasperating season (I, purely out of anger, like to call it Grrrirls) and Hannah (Lena Dunham, Head Girl) has fled the city that never sleeps for the sedate Midwest. One never quite feels that Girls rewards viewers with a good enough laughs-to-excruciation ratio; the first episode was barely amusing at all, but Marnie’s musical efforts were unwatchable. Allison Williams is gorgeous but whenever she sings her face contorts into something that calls for a blunt object – I am tempted, however, to put this down to an intentional flaw inflicted upon us by means of good acting and direction.

It must be said, however, that the second episode was tremendous: Hannah has joined an MFA creative writing course and the scene of student’s reading and responding to each other’s work was a tour de force of effete pretension that, one can only assume, perfectly captures the milieu – and, granted, stereotypes – of those incubators of bad writing.

Among other welcome returns, new seasons of Justified (FX) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox/E4) have also just begun. As this is the final season of Justified and its open episodes have ever been tangles of mystery and misdirection, let it be enough for the moment to say that it is as heartening as ever to see Raylan meting out his personal version of cold justice and that this final run ought to be a doozy, as they might say in Kentucky.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine must be congratulated for losing none of its irreverent puckishness in its second season. It is the heir to preceding idiosyncratic comedies such as Arrested Development, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, and continues the tradition of a remarkable crew of eccentrics delivering great lines – non sequiturs not few among them – at such a pace they’re easy to miss. Those who haven’t seen the first season, must. Twice. It rewards every time.

Jacob Knowles-Smith

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