When have you ever seen a stellar American costume drama? I think it’s safe to say that we do it the best, even if that’s because we have some weird, borderline unhealthy obsession with tradition and class and putting people in their place.
When Hilary Mantel published the historical novel Wolf Hall in 2009, the air must have been winded from TV producers punching it with sheer joy. While Mantel’s writing is very good, the book is bursting with screen potential. The costumes; the baroque music; the stately homes; the opportunity to capitalise on the public’s curious and, quite honestly, tiresome obsession with the monarchy.
The BBC’s production (Wednesdays, 9pm, BBC Two) does the book great justice.
I am strangely drawn to lined faces, and Mark Rylance’s is up there with Samuel Beckett. It is truly a thing of wonder. Every line, every twitch, every smirk: he conveys Thomas Cromwell’s emotion, ambition and development impeccably. Rylance is most famous for his stage acting, and I get the impression that to experience this would be a unique pleasure in the way that it just wouldn’t with other actors, no matter how competent. Like his character Cromwell, Rylance is the glue holding every storyline together: there is hardly one scene in which he is not leading the way, buttering someone up, consoling somebody, manipulating.
In episode two, the camera treated us to lingering shots of him holding, seemingly for no want of furthering the plot, a kitten. If this show was a web page, traffic would be soaring. I’m afraid I couldn’t take this without tweeting it.
Admittedly, Rylance is the only reason I’m still watching. Like the book, the TV adaptation is slow, and Anne Boleyn, though brilliantly conveyed by one-to-watch Claire Foy, is intolerable. She sits on a high chair bossing people around, frustrated that Henry hasn’t divorced Catherine of Aragon yet or just said “sod it” and seduced her anyway, still married to the Spanish Queen. She also, clearly, resents that Mary, her funnier, livelier sister (remember “The Other Boleyn Girl”?), has had sex with Henry, while she hasn’t. Oh and she spits lines out in French every now and then.
Having said that, this week’s episode 3 ended with her finally married to Henry and about to give birth, and my feminist solidarity can’t help but sympathise with any woman who suspects she exists purely as a walking womb, to be cast aside should she give birth to a girl rather than a boy. (I was reminded here of Mantel’s comments about Kate Middleton a couple of years ago, suggesting that she exists only to breed.)
Oh and Damian Lewis? He’s OK; no, he’s good – but like in the book, there isn’t much of him. The story is very much Cromwell’s. And that’s what makes it unique.
Side note: look at those pearls, tucked into Boleyn’s cleavage. Bizarre.