Anne Boleyn, book adaptation, Bring up the Bodies, Claire Foy, Damian Lewis, Henry VIII, Hilary Mantel, historical drama, Mark Rylance, television series review, the tudors, Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall is the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s books Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, following the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. This six part series proved exceptionally popular and for good reason: there was an incredibly talented cast and crew involved who in turn had a brilliant script at their disposal. Together these elements served to bring the novel’s silent power plays and internal conflicts to life.
The real appeal of this show was that it wasn’t so much about the destination but the journey. Everyone knows how this story ends: with Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) mounting the scaffold and being beheaded for treason. As well as being the climax of Mantel’s novel, it is preordained by history – an inescapable fact. But to arrive there with an audience who fully expect some last minute reprieve for the doomed queen, suspending their disbelief and feeling the tension as though they’ve never heard the story before, that is sheer genius. Speaking of, Foy portrayed Anne quite cleverly here. Alongside being a determined, single-minded woman who was well aware of her beauty and knew full well how to use it to her advantage, we also see her as petulant and, dare I say, egotistic. King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) must really have been on the rebound to fall for her like he did, although I suppose these traits did serve to hasten her downfall once she began to fall out of favour with her husband. Anne was partly the architect of her own undoing, but it was utterly impossible not to feel sympathy for her at the same time.
What was truly great to see was that even the smallest roles were superbly executed (pun not intended). Thomas Sangster’s Rafe Sadler is one example that springs to mind, as well as the executioner (Philippe Spall) whose few scenes and even fewer lines stole the show in the final episode. That execution sequence was a highlight of the show and – assuming is historically accurate – I liked how various characters attempted to make the former queen’s death as painless as possible. Life within the Tudor court was also brought vividly to life thanks to the lavish costumes, beautiful décor and grand setting. While some found the darkness in some scenes off-putting I personally enjoyed the use of candlelight because it added authenticity to the whole production.
While I never experienced this problem as strongly as some did, the pacing of the series was sometimes inconsistent. One minute everything was happening at once and the next you had a period of calm where (allow me to channel my inner Taylor Swift) the schemers got to scheme, scheme, scheme, scheme, scheme. Inevitably there were always conflicts simmering just beneath the surface but there were moments when I found my interest in the action happening on screen waning. I know full well that you cannot change history, but maybe some further streamlining was required to make each episode a little more engaging.
As far as historical dramas go, Wolf Hall has been one of the best to date. I’m pleased to say that it definitely earned 4/5 stars. I loved the way it was able to exude a sense that while we, the audience may know the outline of this story already, the characters lived their lives in the present tense with no awareness of their roles in the grand scheme of history. There was no hindsight for them, just a foreboding sense of dramatic irony for us. If period costumes and courtly intrigue is your thing (or even if it’s usually not) I would very much recommend giving this programme a chance.