Review: Wolf Hall

Blu-ray: Wolf Hall (2015)

WHBluReading that Hilary Mantel’s novels ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ were being turned into a TV programme would fill some fans of the books with trepidation. The fact that it was to be a BBC production was great, but the problem would lie, for me, in who would star as the key players of Cromwell, Wolsey, Henry and Boleyn. They’d have to be right, just right, to do Mantel’s story justice.

Wolf Hall is the complete antitheses of ‘The Tudors’; there may be sexual intrigue, politics and death, but this story is the real thing, not an out and out bodice ripper like ‘The Tudors’ that bears little resemblance to actual facts. Which to me was a real travesty; as the old saying goes “truth is stranger than fiction“, and in the case of the Tudors, the truth is far more gruesome.

Mantel chose to tell her story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell; a common man who raised through the ranks to become the second most important and powerful man in England during Henry VIII’s reign. Now as some of you may know, I suppose I am a historian, my degree is in history and I’ve spent my whole adult life being somewhat obsessed with the Tudors. I’d even go so far as to say that if you want to know anything about Anne Boleyn, I’m your girl. So Mantel’s books were so refreshing to me, here was a story based in truth that was not only written beautifully but had real heart and reflected the times in which it was based. It’s so difficult for us today to understand the mind-set of our counterparts 600 years ago. Each decade brings new books on the Tudors, and as we live and think now, this modern attitude reflects in that historian’s writing. So to bring these books to life successfully would be a real challenge, hence the choice of actors being so important.

The script written by Mantel and Peter Straughn is perfect. It reflects the books in a way that I thought would be difficult as it’s told more or less in first person. Where other films would use exposition, Peter Kominsky (the director) has the characters giving us Cromwell’s thoughts as they walk, quickly…the hand held camera following. And for me, this closeness in camera work makes the programme so intimate, I felt as though I was there WITH the characters, listening to their whispers, seeing their glances, and whincing at the barbs. Perhaps most importantly seeing Mark Rylance’s slight delicate changes in movement or expression.

What a job Mark Rylance does as Cromwell. He is amazing. He’s long been lauded as a stage actor and I have seen him in a few films (‘Angels and Insects‘ and ‘Intimacy‘) and he comes across as a very ‘considered’ soulfully intense actor.
His performance in Wolf Hall is a revelation. I was lucky enough several years ago to see Anthony Hopkins live on stage, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Okay, so he was a big movie star (this was literally post his Oscar win for The Silence of the Lambs) but nothing prepared me for how different he was ‘LIVE’; he was electrifying, and so is Mark Rylance. His doe eyes linger, a slight turn of his lips, he pauses, he threatens with real terror and he’s onscreen throughout, the quiet yet strong centre of the story, and his quiet watchfulness dominates every scene with subdued violence. here is a sensitive man, a clever man, a man who knows who he is and what he wants, and will kill you with his bare hands if he has to.

Rylance puts meat on the bones of Cromwell, his performance brings this historical man alive, and instead of a one dimensional examination of a baddie, we have the whole man; his tender moments, his grief, his manipulations, and his horror. It’s pretty rare to be knocked out by someone’s performance, but Rylance is without a doubt the only man who could have played this part with any gravitas.

But then every actor in Wolf Hall is a joy. Big ginger hottie Damian Lewis winds it down a notch and gives a career best in his portrayal of Henry. A man shrouded in religious guilt, manipulated and wet with lust for Claire Foy’s goggled eyed (whore) Anne Boleyn. She almost stamps her feet to get what she wants, a real equal to Henry, watching her rise to power and disliking her for her horrid spoilt, cruel ways, Foy’s performance makes her downfall heart breaking to witness. I should also give a special mention to the sets and costumes; absolutely breath-taking. Using real castles kitted out in Tudor style, and the costumes are replica’s of the real thing.

For me Wolf Hall has been a joy to watch. Sumptuous and dare I say, informative for those who aren’t familiar with our history. I hope that when Mantel finishes the last of the trilogy (the downfall and execution of Cromwell) the BBC are all over it. I can’t praise the whole series enough, it is quite simply magnificent and Mark Rylance is more of a poster boy for me than Poldark’s Aidan Turner any day.

Extras on the Bluray are quite sparse and are basically interviews with the cast and director. I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of a BBC2 programme made at the end of the TV series that was a half hour interview with Kominsky and Rylance. Perhaps when this is released in America they’ll have a better package of extras; like a documentary about Cromwell.

Review by Tina (co-host of 60 Minutes With)