Sunday, September 27, 2015

In this month's Sunday Corner, Lee Liberman assesses the PBS version of WOLF HALL

The Catholic Church met its match in Henry VIII. The Protestant Reformation was an accidental outcome of the Pope's refusal to grant Henry's annulment from Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. It took Thomas Cromwell, Henry's lawyer-fixer, to orchestrate a work-around -- Cromwell got parliament to declare Henry head of the English church and able to grant his own annulment. Although Protestant forces were already at work, Henry's willfulness led to the institutionalizing of Protestantism even though Henry himself was sentimentally attached to Catholic ritual. Reformation was not a calling to either Henry or Cromwell as much as it was political expediency; yet it changed the world.

I was not excited about yet another saga of Henry (Damien Lewis, above center) and his wives, but BBC2's version based on Hilary Mantel's prizewinning books, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, turns out to deserve its heaps of praise. An Atlantic reviewer called Wolf Hall one of the rare series to deserve PBS's title of "Masterpiece". Debuting on PBS last spring, the 6-episode drama is subdued yet more interesting than recent Tudor outings such as The Tudors, The White Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl -- swashbuckling bodice-ripper versions of Tudor mayhem. In contrast, wrote Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic (4/4/15), Mantel's version (the author is shown below) has given us "quieter more authoritative manipulation of power". Mantel herself was quoted as impressed with screenwriter Peter Straughan and director Peter Kosminsky's skill at distilling her heavily researched books, retaining both the essence and considerable nuance.

This version has enough feeling of truth to it to transport one back to the 1500's as witness to the minutia of daily life at Henry's court. Mantel says she seeks to "pin the moment to the page" -- every-day conversation, personality quirks, and small physical gestures make you feel like you are in the room in the moment. Anxiety and stress must have filled the air around this monarch, yet life-threatening was just how things were. Mantel's title: "Wolf Hall" is a bit odd, as it names the Seymour estate, home of Jane Seymour, Henry's next queen. But the title serves to emphasize the blunt 15 minutes of fame that Anne will be allowed in her own time to satisfy Henry's relentless drive to produce a son.

After devoted service, Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce, below, right) was cast off because he had failed to obtain an annulment for Henry from the Pope; Thomas More (Anton Lesser) was beheaded for his uncompromising opposition to reformation. Cromwell was to lose his own head over similar inconvenience to Henry, but that part of the story will take place in a sequel, if one follows.

Wolf Hall is told through the eyes of Cromwell (Mark Rylance,shown below), a commoner who ran away from violence at home in his teens to soldier in Europe, learn banking in Italy and the law in London, later to become a steely survivor and fixer for Henry. He appears up close as a doting father and husband while back stage he stealthily orchestrates the machinations required to satisfy Henry's demands and fill his coffers. To those ends Cromwell first collaborated with Anne (Claire Foy) to contrive her succession to Katherine (Joanne Whalley) and then turned face rapidly, framing courtiers as Anne's lovers in order to depose her. Further, he conducted anti-Catholic purges, disposing of Catholic clerics, institutions, libraries -- depredations as ugly as present day terrorist destruction of Middle-Eastern ancient structures and relics.

But the story of Cromwell and his peer Thomas More reflects the Reformation according to who is doing the telling. Here, Protestant Mantel seeks to counter the prevailing reputation of Thomas More as humane, saintly, and intellectual and the sinister image of Cromwell (shown below at around age 48 in a portrait by Hans Holbein the younger) as a depraved Machiavellian fanatic. In Mantel's version, More is impugned for demeaning his family members and his torture of Protestant heretics while Cromwell is both humane and business oriented, punishing the excesses and hypocrisies of the Catholic Church and redirecting sources of church income to Henry's depleted treasury. Mantel does not let Cromwell off the hook, but her version does provide more balance to his character compared to older versions of Tudor history. (Before Henry VIII, his father, Henry Tudor/Henry VII, defeated and deposed Richard III at Bosworth, ending the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare, child of the Tudor era, gave us Richard III, the 'poisonous bunchback'd toad' we have loved to hate until lately. Historians have begun to right his reputation as a man of integrity who modernized the English legal system.)

The entire cast is extraordinary. Rylance, known very well across the pond, is finally visible here in a vehicle that displays his subtle and self-effacing brilliance. David Hinckley, NYDaily News, wrote that Rylance plays Cromwell "with a face that would win a stonewalling contest with the Sphinx". Cromwell must have learned very well to mask his emotions. Ms Foy has been distinguishing herself quietly for years (she stole series II of "Upstairs-Downstairs", re-run over the summer on PBS, playing the sociopathic sister of the lady of the house). Foy's Anne Boleyn is a memorable duo of haughty entitlement and seductiveness, an annoying presence to her enemies (see Anne below -- if looks could kill....). Mr. Lewis's Henry s menacing because he is so capriciousness. Other lesser figures of nobility are mere worker bees scrambling to stay in the good graces of the political moment. Yet many lesser characters stay with you, such as Charity Wakefield (Sense and Sensibility) as Anne's sister Mary and Jessica Reine (Call the Midwives) as Anne's sister-in-law -- a tribute to their acting and to beautiful screenwriting and direction.

The naturalistic intimacy of Mantel's Tudor court makes it appear much more truthful than earlier Tudor projects, yet one must be aware of being influenced by an author who is simply a more convincing story-teller. The author/screenwriter's point of view can decisively affect our view of history, as in this case, to possibly moderate if not reverse long-held views of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Yet Mantel appears somewhat even-handed as is the noted Catholic historian Eamon Duffy, who does a fair job of explaining (here) the two figures despite his own predispositions.

This clip (click the link) gives you a flavor of the interactions among the players as Anne begins to sense her control over her position is at risk.

The photo chart above (from Vanity Fair magazine) depicts the main players in Wolf Hall.

The above post was written by our correspondent, Lee Liberman

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