Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Wolf Hall on the BBC

this was a good scene: Thomas Cromwell showing off his old skills as a soldier to all the beardy dudes in floppy hats
The BBC have been doing costume drama on television for sixty years now so they should be pretty good at it. And the material they've been given to adapt this time is first rate: Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies both of which won Booker prizes. Mantel's books tell the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn which everybody is familiar with from countless movies, books, school work and TV adaptations...so not much heavy lifting there for the scriptwriters to explain the setting. Wolf Hall was given a generous budget by BBC standards and the directors were able to cast more or less whomever they wanted. All of this wd make you think that the series should be good and certainly the reviews of Wolf Hall in the British and Irish papers have been nothing short of ecstatic. "Utterly brilliant," "superb" "intelligent" and this from Daily Telegraph "the best BBC costume drama ever..." Wow...So by now you've probably twigged that I haven't been enjoying Wolf Hall. You've twigged right. For my money all the papers and reviewers are wrong. Wolf Hall is static, slow, poorly filmed and, I'm sorry to say, poorly cast. The casting is a big problem - far too many characters have speaking roles and they look far too much alike. I kept getting Anne Boleyn mixed up with her sister and her ladies maids and even Jane Seymour (a mistake you do not want to make in real life). And all those similar, pale, actory looking blokes with floppy hats and little beards. . .I've read the books twice and I didn't know who was who half the time. And the lead? Well, I'm allowed to be a little unkind here because everyone else has been so generous about him and he's never going to read this. . .Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell the way Roger Moore played James Bond: he's a game chicken but he's just far far too old for the part. Rylance is 55 and looks older, wiser and more defeated than the canny, spirited, lively Cromwell of the books. In real life Cromwell was in his early 40's when he began to have dealings with King Henry and in his 30's when he began to do wet work for Cardinal Wolsey. This is, famously, how Mantel describes her Cromwell: 

His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and late to bed. 


Cromwell in the books is fluid, smart, mercurial, sexy, dangerous and vindictive. In Hans Holbein's painting he's bold, watchful, brassy and well fed. Rylance just isn't that guy I'm afraid. 

...
Claire Foy is good as Anne Boleyn and Bernard Hill as the Duke of Norfolk is profane, bold, vulgar, swaggering and brilliant. Anton Lesser, alas, is a big charisma suck as Thomas More and Damien Lewis's Henry isn't very sexy or dangerous either (he simpers, cries and prays way too much) and because of that much of the tension and real fear of the books just isn't there. And, as I've said, the rest of the supporting cast is bland and samey... 
...
The cinematography is a problem too. Wolf Hall has been shot in the same style the BBC has been doing forever. Establishing shot, close up, relentless scheme of shot/counter shot in the two handers. Wolf Hall could have been made thirty years ago: the camerawork is polite, uninventive, stationary, soft focused and dull. Futhermore the decision to film much of the interiors in what looks like natural light (or a simulated natural or candle light) is an interesting Kubrickian one, but it doesn't quite come off and the interior scenes are drearier than they need to be. And there are a lot of interior scenes. (Remember when they criticised The Phantom Menace for all its tedious scenes of people talking politics on uncomfortable chairs...well here there are endless scenes of people talking politics and God in dimly lit rooms on uncomfortable chairs.) I think if HBO had gotten the rights to this rather than the BBC they would have cast it better, lit it properly, had many more exteriors and filmed everything with more panache. 
...
But look this is just one person's opinion and I am clearly a voice crying in the wilderness. (I thought the BBC's Sherlock was bollocks so what do I know.) And I haven't read a single negative review of Wolf Hall anywhere. Watch it and you'll probably like it, and then you should watch the BBC adaptation of JK Rowling's A Casual Vacancy which will probably be right up your alley too. Me? I was disappointed. A great couple of books have been turned into safe, conformist, predictable, middle-class, rather mediocre television that'll play well for Anglophiles everywhere on the BBC, BBC America and PBS.