Wolf Hall Episode 1
On the one hand, the TV series Wolf Hall should be just up my alley. Most of us, I think, have some genre that we love so much that we’ll watch even the crappiest iterations of it. For some it’s horror, others it’s action. For me, it’s historical fiction.
On the other hand, I loved the book. Like, LOVED it. It only came out a few years ago, and I’ve read it five times. I honestly think it’s my favorite novel written in the past fifty years. Partly because it is one of the only actually-good historical fiction books I ever read. But this doesn’t mean I’m eager to see it filmed. Rather, I have incredibly high expectations.
There are some books you read, and you’d love to see them visually presented. Wolf Hall is in its novel form by Hilary Mantel is so thoroughly from the perspective of only one person (Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s most important minister). It’s not that it’s stream-of-consciousness – rather, it’s a catalog of his actions and perceptions with the intent of revealing his thoughts and feelings. This was not, then, a book I was eager to see in pixels. Besides, I’ve seen The Tudors. Which I watched, because it was an iteration of historical fiction. But boy, was it crap. And the events of the early seasons of Tudors and Wolf Hall overlap, even if the perspective is different – so I wasn’t sure what a new televised series would bring.
I could have loved the TV show, I could have hated it. I suppose I could have been meh, too. But I was totally blown away.
Here’s my caveat: I wonder, as I did reading the book, whether I’d be able to follow all the events of the story if I didn’t already know them from reading histories of the era. There are many more flashbacks and flashforwards in the TV show than in the book (which was a pleasant surprise), but I wonder if it was hard to follow.
The jumps in time, though, were effective at recreating a sense of historical consideration. We all know that Anne Boleyn will get her head cut off, and so too will Thomas Cromwell. So whenever we read about an event in history or historical fiction, our minds tend to jump back and forth in time. We consider what caused the event, and what the event led to (and what we know that the characters didn’t know.
I had never heard of the man who plays Cromwell, Mark Rylance. Apparently, he’s got an incredible reputation for his stage performances. Cromwell is not an easy character to play because he’s a guy who plays everything close to the vest. Rylance has such a morphable, expressive face that he does a really impressive job at revealing things to the audience that he hides from other characters.
The first episode of the TV series, I think, puts us thematically ahead of the first sixth of the book. [SPOILER ALERT] We learn how devoted Cromwell was to Cardinal Wolsey (which Mantel implies serves as an explanation for his future actions), we see Wolsey’s downfall at the hands of Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell’s home life (his marriage in the show seemed less happy than the book portrayed), we see that home life get snatched away as sweating sickness kills his wife and two daughters.
It’s hard to emphasize how unostentatious this production is compared to most historical fictions. There aren’t the same lingering close-ups on jewels and crowns and heaving bosoms. Emotions are more muted, even Cromwell’s grief (and he grieves over much in the first episode). In spite of this or because of it, I found it very moving, tearing up when his daughters died.
The natural light tends to make the scenes look either like Vermeers or Rembrandts. Less so Holbeins. It feels painterly, almost like we are seeing a slide show of artworks.
These are events I’ve read about in multiple history books, the novel, other (crappier) novels. And there still seemed a new light shed. The series is about watching Thomas Cromwell watching others. Which sounds so boring, right? Couldn’t be more compelling. I can’t wait to see what he sees next week.