Not free to speak

This is my review of Wolf Hall [DVD] [2015].

Henry Vlll's reign is one of the most intriguing periods in popular history but to appreciate Hilary Mantel's work requires a good understanding of the issues involved. The director Kosminsky has maintained her approach in providing little by way of explanation, and does not make clear the roles, let alone the names (which at least you get in the books), of many of the minor characters. The likely resultant confusion may well be more of a reason for viewers to turn off than the difficulty of identifying charaters in the flickering candlelight.

Kosminsky has managed to compress two quite hefty novels into six one hour episodes yet still maintain a slow pace because the books consist largely of description and Cromwell's internal reflections rather than action. The director has replaced descriptions with the use of authentic sets in Elizabethan dwellings like Montacute combined with painstaking attention to period detail – perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the series. Cromwell's thoughts have been handled with short flashbacks and the watchful, miss-nothing stares and glances of which Mark Rylance is a past master. Perhaps the puzzle as to what he is really thinking is part of the drama. Is he sizing Jane Seymour up as a malleable and hopefully fertile substitute for Anne Boleyn, or as a wife for himself, so that Henry's interest in the girl comes as a blow? Brilliant though he is, Rylance seems just too wiry, playful and sensitive to play the beefy, calculating fixer we see emerging from the shadowy background of the famous Holbein portrait, but no doubt this is legitimate dramatic licence.

In a perhaps intentionally "stagy" film production, Kosminsky has been true to Mantel's interpretation of Cromwell, if anything developing some of the characters more clearly through his tighter format. So, we see Henry becoming a capricious tyrant, although his sense of vulnerability over the lack of a son evokes our sympathy, surrounded as he is by scheming nobles. Similarly, Anne Boleyn's vicious bitchiness is ever more obviously a cloak for her own insecurity and growing sense of panic with each miscarriage, and at the end she goes to her death with a dignity that commands respect. Cromwell himself appears more ruthless as the plot progresses, prepared to twist and fabricate evidence and showing vengeance in making victims of men against whom he has a grudge, such as the young noblemen who mocked his former master Wolsey so cruelly in a masked play. But he too has become trapped in his role as the King's fixer, with no real choice other than to do Henry's bidding. It was an unpleasant surprise to find Thomas More, the saintly "man for all seasons", portrayed as a cruel bigot in Mantel's book. If anything, Kosminsky makes him rather more sympathetic, greatly reducing the trial scene which forms the climax of the book, to focus more on the interplay between More and Cromwell: the former wearily unable to sacrifice his beliefs, even to regain his freedom and home comforts, the latter giving vent to a rare burst of real feeling to express his anger over More's own persecution of reformers, yet still privately regretting the demise of someone he has admired from his poverty-stricken boyhood, although the privileged More does not admit to remembering him from then at all.

I understand why the series has been so highly praised, but feel it would have made more of an impact in a feature-length film, or a two-parter, like the recent stage play. For me, Wolf Hall as a book has a contrived quality, a hollow heart, which is inevitably reflected in this filmed version.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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