Published on January 23rd, 2015 | by Bean0
WOLF HALL REVIEW – Episode 1 “Three Card Trick” – BBC Drama
The much anticipated “Wolf Hall” finally unfurls onto our screens tonight with such easy grace and regality that I initially found myself floundering in it’s wake, like one starstruck. We are invited into the world of Reformation-era England and all it’s attendant problems with subtle flair; Peter Kosminsky’s direction gives viewers the type of details one might find in sumptuous prose, and audiences will no doubt be as absorbed and rapturous as the whole world has been by Hilary Mantel’s critically-acclaimed novel.
Adaptations by their nature must employ sleight of hand; too close to the source material and it’ll be a trudge, stray too far and you lose the faithful. Having not read Mantel’s book, I cannot speak for the success of ‘Wolf Hall’ as an adaptation, but I can vouch that it is a gorgeous piece of television. I don’t think it is hubris to claim that no other network but the BBC could produce something so reeking of classy choices. This really is their wheelhouse.
Mark Rylance gives a masterfully understated performance as Thomas Cromwell, a carefully crafted appeal to the genuine, the humane. His Cromwell seems initially to be given so many admirable qualities – warm and loving family man, loyal friend and employee, honest and bold with his detractors and courteous to those who slight him – that it takes all of Rylance’s skills to play them round into a credible whole. As with all great craftsmen, the work is invisible. Rylance’s portrayal appears effortless, seamless nuances that might go unnoticed were they not so affecting. Other characters repeatedly tell Cromwell what he is or isn’t; a nobody, a dog, “such a… person”. Who he truly turns out to be remains to be seen, but Rylance’s tiny gestures tell a thousand tales, and each moment reveals a new facet.
This type of gradual unravelling is echoed in the piece as a whole; tempo is everything. For something so stately, the pace never drags. Like a beautiful game of chess, each scene moves the match along to it’s inexorable showdown – or perhaps to a quiet fait accompli. Who knows? Television of late has so wildly ramped the stakes and over-amped what counts as dramatic, to the point where beheadings have become tedious, that to be permitted the chance to enjoy a story that takes whatever time it requires – what a joy!
Gavin Finney’s cinematography aptly paints each frame like a portrait. This doesn’t detach the viewer from proceedings though, but rather entices you further into the twisting corridors of power, particularly since the camera remains handheld. We go from observer to participant as these choices afford what might be a rather distant scenario the magical realism the situations demand. The interiors oppress, all gloom and half light. In fact the lighting is like another character, telling as much about the fortunes of the players as the dialogue between them. In the downturn for Wolsey, nothing shines, the candles only illuminate far enough to reveal the sweat on his brow. Even the firelight merely casts long shadows. Jonathan Pryce augurs like a good’un in all his scenes, presaging his own downfall with sad smiles and tired eyes.
Debbie Wiseman’s original music makes for a haunting score to the rich visuals, mixing Tudor instruments with the modern; Cromwell’s Theme aches with each baleful note of the oboe. The same level of skill has been applied to the production design, set dressing and art direction. The costumes are sublime; sumptuous robes of Cardinals and Kings bespeak their riches and the responsibilities of the office they bear but as his favour declines, the heavy threads seem to weigh down the weary Wolsey and the scarlet mantle he wears is enshrouded in a borrowed brown cloak.
The cast of supporting characters are brimming with arch performances. The always-brilliant Mark Gatiss gives us a pallid, sneering secretary who wafts about like a bad smell, while Claire Foy’s viper Anne Boleyn fairly surges with corseted energies. Bernard Hill happily chews the tapestries with Norfolk’s beautiful line about war with France, and Saskia Reeves brings real pathos to an already sorrowful scene.
The scene which ‘Three Card Trick’ has been leading up to from it’s opening frame, the exchange between Cromwell and Henry is judiciously brief; in fact, tantalisingly so. For all the snarl and glare, there is a predatory quality to Damien Lewis’ king that edges into leery and unsettling territories. As Cromwell holds his own, parrying his majesty’s accusations with logic and sound assessments of Henry’s errors, the air of mutual-appraisal is charged with power; one man’s handed down by God and the other’s earned from the travails of a survivor – hard won.
In ‘Wolf Hall’ we have a new standard of television, that brings with it the patience of bygone eras. There is something of the ‘I, Claudius’ about it, or perhaps even the original BBC ‘House of Cards’. Machinations at court have never been so engrossing.
REVIEW BY Nina Clark
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