torsdag 5 november 2015

The Cardinal's man

In spite of having read both Wolf Hall and Bring Out The Bodies and enjoyed them (though I was shocked by Thomas Cromwell's behaviour in the latter), I didn't expect to think much of the TV dramatisation of the novels, called simply Wolf Hall. True, most of the reviews were very favourable indeed, but in a somewhat off-putting way. They made it sound impossibly worthy and high-brow, and thus implied the reviewers' contempt for more easy-going, middlebrow costume-drama fare. At length, I started watching the series and did, at first, get irritated by its high-browness. Yet it has grown on me. I've watched four of six episodes now, and am feeling increasingly positive. Admittedly, a certain long-night's-journey-into-day Downton plot line (I bloody well hope there'll be some daylight at the end of it, anyway) may have made me feel especially sympathetic to Cromwell's "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" mindset. If there ever was a time when I could be led to believe that lopping a group of people's heads off just because they vilified someone you care about in a play was anything else than bananas, this is that time.

Wolf Hall the series may be slow-burning, but it has a great deal going for it. For one, it is superlatively acted. I spent the starting credits cooing "Ooh, is he in it? And she?" - there's an awful lot of acting talent involved. Mark Rylance lives up to the hype as Cromwell himself, and has more charm than the Cromwell of the novels. When he smiles, you feel that he is sharing a dry joke with the person he's speaking to, which must leave them feeling flattered. His expressive face registers other emotions, such as cardinal-induced blues or ill-disguised dislike of the self-righteous More (a convincing Anton Lesser, enjoying himself), just as easily. Damian Lewis is puppyish enough as Henry VIII to make it believable that Cromwell should underestimate his tyrannic streak. The willowy Claire Foy is a perfect fit for the role of spiteful Anne Boleyn, and it takes something to be the perfect Anne and the perfect Little Dorrit. Bernard Hill is a joy as the unapologetically brutal Norfolk (admittedly, he has some of the best lines). I could go on.

Also, the dialogue is snappy and the adaptation is skillful. It has at its focus Cromwell's filial affection for Cardinal Wolsey (a suitably disarming Jonathan Pryce), which was one of his most humanising traits in Mantel's novels. This almost makes sense of the twists and turns of Cromwell's career. While Wolsey is alive, he protects the Cardinal's interests and works to get him back in favour with the King. When Wolsey dies, Cromwell tries to protect his memory instead, and is incensed when it is defiled by Anne's gang of young bucks. He is set on avenging his old employer, settling scores with whoever has sneered at him or caused him a moment's discomfort - though with a few notable exceptions, as I will soon return to. Wolf Hall the novel focused a great deal more on Cromwell's Protestant sympathies as a motivating factor; however, in Bring Out The Bodies,  Cromwell readily dispensed with these sympathies and allied himself with Catholic nobles against the reform-friendly Anne. Perhaps it is wise, then, for the series not to make too great a claim for Cromwell's reformatory zeal and concentrate on the Wolsey plot line instead. It makes for some great human drama, too: you feel the Cardinal's ghost is standing between Anne and Cromwell at every opportunity, even when they have a shared interest. In one scene, they both stand at a window gloating over More's resignation as Lord Chancellor, and Anne, in a rare gesture of sympathy, puts her hand over Cromwell's. But he's wearing the Cardinal's ring, and as the person largely responsible for his downfall she - and we, the viewers - sense without being told that she and Cromwell can never really be friends.

There are weaknesses with the Wolsey storyline, though, and they're not the adaptation's fault, as they exist in the novels as well. As I've pointed out before, who is the main guilty party in Wolsey's destruction? Why, the King himself, the very same man that Cromwell serves so dutifully. And what about the Dukes Norfolk and Suffolk: were they not worse enemies of Wolsey than an ungrateful lute player or some courtiers making asses of themselves in an (admittedly nasty) play? It seems Cromwell is not too keen to try his mettle against the most powerful men in the land, however anti-Wolsey they may have been. I suppose one may argue that a fierce but openly fought battle is more easy to forgive than small, unnecessary slights and betrayals. Nevertheless, Cromwell's loyalty to the King's cause - which in time will lead to his own fall from grace and execution - is hard to make sense of in the circumstances, especially as - vengenance apart - you never really discover what he wants to use his power for.

The adaptation has some weaknesses of its own as well, like the already-mentioned high-browness, as evidenced by the historically accurate dim light, the renaissancy music and the meaningful pauses that litter the conversation (I'm a sworn enemy to meaningful silences in film and on TV: they may work on stage, but on screen they merely slow up the pace). But at least it earns its chops as quality drama. Too often nowadays you get lush hooey like The Tudors, which takes itself far more seriously than it deserves and consequently often manages to fall between the chairs of ambitious drama and light entertainment (Reign, of which I've seen two episodes, is another example of this genre: so po-faced it's surpisingly boring, in spite of the glamorous sets and bed-hopping). Wolf Hall, at least, is the real deal - though maybe not ideal for after-gym watching.