Series Review: Wolf Hall.

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It’s a lesson which Hilary Mantel should have surely learned along the way. One minute you are at a point of dazzling supremacy, your fame and flair wows the nation, but then something changes, your fair-weather friends retreat as a shadow begins to fall, and finally you are being walked out to face the block, or to at least a load of unenthusiastic comments on Twitter.

BBC2’s Wolf Hall, the latest extension of Mantel’s multi-format franchise, is ultimately damned by the fact that nobody really knows what to make of it. Michael Leapman at the Telegraph had ventured earlier in the month that, “Halfway through the run of Wolf Hall, the consensus seems to be that it’s good, or at least goodish.” The Guardian, with the attitude of its entire social class channelled through Lucy Mangan, wrote yesterday that, “There wasn’t a moment of Peter Kosminsky’s direction or Peter Straughan’s deft, beautifully elliptical writing that left you wanting for anything throughout this six-week splendour.” This might have just been relief at getting through to the end. Another Guardian writer, Barbara Ellen, had previously observed thatWolf Hall is haemorrhaging viewers because it’s so slow, dull and darkly shot.”

Let’s try to separate how Wolf Hall looks from how it is. It looks uneasily stunning, both sumptuous and rather incongruously cobwebbed. The decision by Peter Kosminsky, the series’ director, to use only natural lighting or candlelight, along with the careful authenticity of the costumes and props, gives Wolf Hall the crispness of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. It’s as if we have slipped into a Vermeer interior and we are passing freely through the rooms, amazed by everything that our eyes fall upon. Yet Kosminsky is betrayed by his dedication to authenticity when choosing to film Wolf Hall within the relics of surviving Tudor properties. Henry VIII was a wealthy Renaissance prince who surrounded himself with beautiful things. He did not dress up in tangerine finery to then loiter about in ruined buildings, next to crumbling walls. We are left with an odd impression of a half-impoverished people, who live it up but who can’t afford to do up their houses.

I was happiest when lingering before the appearance of Wolf Hall, and uncomfortable once pressing on into its depths. There is here a sing-song uncertainty and the series is distinguished by its constant ability to impress and underwhelm you at the same time. The stolidity of the drama is almost a rebuke to Game of Thrones fans – it makes you feel guilty about taking pleasure in the flashy excitement of Game of Thrones – and yet Wolf Hall seems to be somehow less substantial or even less authentically Shakespearean than Game of Thrones. When Anne Boleyn is standing up to Cromwell, it’s all rather hopeless and the drama flops. She pales in comparison to a Dothraki invasion.

For a series which is keen to avoid the “mumbling” which had sunk the BBC’s last high-profile historical drama, Jamaica Inn, there’s still a great deal of mumbling within Wolf Hall. The cast can all spit it out, but the plot, the meaning, and the overall point of Wolf Hall are all roundly mumbled. So too, however, are some of the criticisms of the series. The general, inexplicable dissatisfaction with Wolf Hall was eventually manifested in a bizarre complaint which became almost a proxy or a symbol: that you can’t see it. People have been making out on Twitter that the series is virtually invisible because its interior scenes are lit by candlelight. Unfortunately, articles which gleefully outline this great BBC production error sooner or later have to produce the evidence. In every photograph everything is perfectly visible. It nonetheless works far better as a symbol: Wolf Hall leaves you with a murky, gloomy feeling, a sense of wavering confidence in what you are seeing.

As Tychy had argued when reviewing the book back in 2010, Wolf Hall will always be limited as a work of art, however magnificent the prose, because of its status as fact-ion. Henceforth:

Anybody who reads Wolf Hall as a straightforward historical romance will probably complain that it is rendered almost incoherent by an overindulgence in unnecessary detail… The narrative of Wolf Hall retains no means of declaring where the facts end and the fiction begins, and so one interested in the history of the piece has to read the book with Google at their elbow, to verify any eyebrow-raising detail. This novel should be really subtitled “Bring your own footnotes.”

Wolf Hall is neither roaming at liberty as imaginative fiction nor a subscriber to the discipline of the historical documentary. Although Oscar Wilde had famously opined that “all art is quite useless,” Wolf Hall is altogether too useless. Wilde’s uselessness at least had a function – “simply to create a mood,” as he put it – but Wolf Hall has no discernible function. It has instead muddled the contradictory functions of the aesthetic and the practical, in a synthesis of the two which is actually a negation.

The viewers’ search for something noble and Shakespearean in Wolf Hall is soon obstructed by the reality that the innocence of Shakespeare’s histories is no longer a feasible tactic today. Shakespeare could bend the history – his own historical plays served an educational purpose for audiences who must have known next to nothing about the English kings. Whenever Wolf Hall bends the history, however, it becomes inauthentic and objectionable. It was far easier for Shakespeare to turn Richard III into a villain than it is for the BBC to duff up Sir Thomas More or Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Bungle More – and with Anton Lesser’s portrayal Wolf Hall truly has! – and a thousand professional and amateur historians will spring up on Twitter and surround the series waving their swords.

The issue here is not just the history but the characterisation. There are no doubt more sophisticated ways of indicating that More was corrupted by power than by showing him racking heretics in his own house. If a BBC docudrama had aired a scene in which Jack Straw personally waterboards terrorist detainees, not much of the BBC would be left after the lawyers and regulators had finished. This does nothing, of course, to deny that Jack Straw approves of waterboarding, and with Wolf Hall it’s merely a question of how competently you represent and explore More’s compromised idealism. Wolf Hall didn’t do this very competently. More was soon resembling Uncle Fester from the Addams Family – a querulous and sprightly figure, with a personal torture chamber in his own living-room. A lover of Latin has told me that Lesser’s pronunciation, when reading aloud during the torture scene, was more harrowing than the racking.

One could go even further and place More within a worrying anti-Catholic trend which has developed lately on the BBC. Take, as exhibit two, the BBC’s recent adaptation of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. The crusading Catholic priest, who Chesterton had portrayed wandering the world, is now Anglicanised into a parish vicar with a mild Catholic rinse. BBC audiences are kept away from Chesterton’s aggressive Catholic challenge to the twentieth-century and Father Brown is thus toned down.

Still, there’s a flimsiness to the characterisation within Wolf Hall which is basically a feature of bad art. Wolf Hall is haunted by Shakespeare – one of the reasons why Mark Rylance is so oddly unnerving as Thomas Cromwell is because he looks far more like a thespian than a normal person. He’s as stealthy as a panther, with every cushioned action immensely calculated. If he behaved like this in real life, he’d be surrounded by people who were screaming “snap out of it!” Like a huge ponderous rock, he’s only good when he’s finally on the roll, with the interrogation scenes quickly acquiring a startling power.

As a character, however, he’s embarrassingly thin. Stirring scenes of oratorical confrontation between himself and More are avoided, in favour of the fantasy that Cromwell had held a lifelong grudge against somebody who wouldn’t befriend him as a child. When Cromwell was a mucky servant boy and More an embroidered scholar, they met and More turned his nose up at Cromwell. I don’t use the term “revenge” because this isn’t Elizabethan revenge – it’s just a grudge. But this is offered to us to pocket like a coin, as a user-friendly explanation of Cromwell’s motivations and character. It’s not just naff but it’s dumbing down a complicated story, bringing the petty and personal to the forefront and evading the geopolitical implications of the two men’s power struggle.

Last night’s finale was the most successful episode in the series because the characters were frozen in the nightmarish slide towards Boleyn’s execution. The king had made his will known and everybody had to comply, reducing the plot to an empty, perfunctory theatre. We never sniff out what is really going on in Boleyn’s harem of squirming young men; we can only wonder at what Henry is really thinking about the execution (his written “tragedy” remains a closed book). The king is a figure of Blairite shiftiness, with the same fleeting charm and reptilian grin. Boleyn is his Iraq.

Damien Lewis’ Henry and Claire Foy’s Boleyn are greatly more compelling than Cromwell since they do not step out of their place in history. We witness only their recorded, public actions and their private motivations remain veiled. With Cromwell and More, however, we trespass from history, straying from the likely and the realistic.

Yet Wolf Hall is also morally lightweight. Cromwell appears to be sympathetic merely due to his proximity, but the series attempts to bolster a moral rationale on to his skulduggery. He’s an anti-establishment figure within the establishment, crusading against privilege. In reality, he probably wasn’t. When Boleyn is booked for the chop, Cromwell assumes an amoral veneer, like someone who is just doing his job, and he bathes the queen in sorrowful looks. It’s here instructive to compare the torture scenes in More’s and Cromwell’s respective households. With More it’s not pretty, whilst it’s implied that, under Cromwell’s hospitality, poor scaredy-cat Mark Smeaton is only psychologically tortured by being locked in a haunted room. This is, like so much of Wolf Hall, a mixture of flair and naffness: it pays tribute to Mantel by referencing the trademark supernaturalism found elsewhere in her fiction (such as in Beyond Black), but it’s equally a clunky allusion to the “phantom” evidence against Boleyn. With Cromwell’s weary line about “stamping on dormice,” we end up travelling alongside a compassionate, fatherly Machiavellian schemer. Not even the series’ fiercest defenders would claim that this was plausible.

I can understand why there’s a lot to fight for over Wolf Hall. People desperately want the BBC to hark back to the lavish dramas of yesteryear, or to at least produce television which is as intelligent as its audiences are. Unfortunately, in 2015 you’re more likely to find the remedy at King’s Landing – in a series which one of its own actors has compared to “German porn from the 1970s” – than you are within BBC drama.

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