The Tudor period is one of the most fascinating of historical periods, and, when they're done well (and they mostly are, a number brilliantly even), so are filmed or televised historical period dramas.
Of the numerous films, documentaries and mini-series of the Tudor period, 1971's 'Elizabeth R), 1970's 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII', 1966's 'A Man for All Seasons', 1998's Elizabeth, 1971's 'Mary Queen of Scots' and 1935's 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' are particularly great. Also very much enjoy 1969's 'Anne of the Thousand Days', 1986's 'Lady Jane' and David Starkey's late 90s- early 00's documentaries on Henry VIII and Elizabeth, and have heard nothing but good things about 2005's 'Elizabeth I' and 1972's 'The Shadow of the Tower' (both of which are high on my to see list).
'Wolf Hall' appealed to me straightaway with the great talent that it had on board and that the two books that it's based on are very absorbing reads. Some people might take the attitude of "why another drama based on the Tudors when there are so many already?", but few if any have been done from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, one of the most interesting , from what has been written about him and how he has been portrayed on film and TV, figures from this period. 'Wolf Hall' may not be the most original (then again did it ever need to be?) or accurate (being based on two part-historical, part- fiction books based on the period) of Tudor dramas, but on its own it's utterly riveting television. To me, some of the absolute best of 2015, let down only personally by a slightly rushed final episode and an on-the-abrupt- side ending that gave the sense that the series could and should have been an episode longer.
Some people have taken issue with the slow pace, the dim lighting, even the production values, as well as questioning the accuracy and some of the characterisations. None of these were issues with me. From personal view, 'Wolf Hall' is a very well-made series, the scenery, locations and interiors are incredibly lavish and the costumes are well-worn, true to period and lovingly tailored (didn't see any cheapness at all). It is beautifully photographed too, and the candle light and natural daylight added absolutely to the drama's authenticity as that is how it would have been back then. The music score is pleasant and unobtrusive with a good sense of mood.
The quality of the writing in 'Wolf Hall' is superb too. It is very literate, remarkably intelligent and thoughtful with a surprising amount of subtlety that was much appreciated. As well as some understated but witty humour, suspense and palpable poignancy. There is none of the stilted, over-flowery rambling quality that it could have had, and there is similarly none of the subtlety-of-an-axe writing that was present in Tudor dramas like particularly 2003' s 'Henry VIII' and the still enjoyable-if-taken-on-its-own-terms-as- entertainment 'The Tudors'. Reportedly, director Peter Kosminksy was bowled over by the quality of the first draft of Peter Straughan's script-writing, amazed at how he managed to compress two long books into 6 hours worth of television so sensitively (the author of the books Hilary Mantel also called his writing "a miracle of elegant compression"), praise that this viewer too agrees with because it really was one of the most striking things about it. Adaptation- wise, 'Wolf Hall' may be compressed but what is there is faithfully done and it still manages to be coherent. The slow pacing was deliberate and not only was not a problem at all (personally, and for many others too) but necessary, the quiet and sometimes dark tone working beautifully. The first episode may have a slight find- its-feet feel pace wise but gets strong quickly, and there is nothing gratuitous, out of place or heavy-handed-for-the-sake-of- shock-value. In terms of effective scenes, Anne Boleyn's execution was heart-wrenching and chilling and the final scene between Cromwell and Henry is enough to bite the nails.
Kosminsky directs splendidly, and the performances are uniformly of high quality in very well-written complex roles that are, unlike 'The White Queen' (at first) , easy to tell who's who. Particular praise should go to the tour-De-force portrayal of Mark Rylance as Cromwell, more sympathetic and understated than most characterisations of Cromwell (often portrayed as the opposite, though the scheming calculating characteristics are not forgotten just not as obvious as it can be), but Rylance displays the remarkable and also rare gift of doing so much with as little as a glance and very few words, refreshing after sitting through a fair few performances recently where actors struggle to give anywhere near that amount of believability to a page, or even a line, of dialogue. Some of his most effective acting even is when he is reacting to what is being said to him or when he shows stillness amidst chaos.
Damian Lewis also excels and brings multiple dimensions to one of history's most famous (and notorious) monarchs, as do Anton Lesser as a less-than-saintly (one of historians' chief objections apparently) but still fascinatingly complex Thomas More and Bernard Hill's repellent and authoritative Duke of Norfolk. Claire Foy brings a conniving bitchiness and radiant charm to Anne Boleyn, her interpretation is not the most dimensional in the way Genevieve Bujold's performance is but it is still a compelling performance.
All in all, truly riveting stuff and very highly recommended. 2015 was hit and miss for television, and 'Wolf Hall' was up there with the hits. 9/10 Bethany Cox
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