Peter Straughan’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies into a six-part TV serial has no right to be this good but somehow, it manages the extraordinary feat of being genuinely excellent. I didn’t watch it at the time and so caught up with its complexities and nuances over a binge-watch at Christmas. And though I’m no real fan of his acting on stage, there’s no doubting the titanic performance of Mark Rylance as the almighty Thomas Cromwell.
Mantel charts the rise of this lowly-born blacksmith’s boy through service as lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey (a brilliant Jonathan Pryce) to the heights of the Tudor court as Henry VII’s (Damian Lewis on fine form) chief fixer, predominantly in the matter of securing the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon to enable him to wed Anne Boleyn. Rylance really is very good, subtler than he is onstage as he negotiates the world of ‘gentlemen’ – in which he is constantly underestimated – from the sidelines, wielding increasing amounts of power, though with it fewer and fewer scruples.
Peter Kosminsky’s direction eschews any kind of artificial light, so a hugely atmospheric candlelit gloom prevails, ideal for skulduggery in corners and whispered assignations. Or in the case of Claire Foy’s magnificent Anne Boleyn, her machinations out and proud for all to see as she goes toe to toe with the men who would control her, even as they become increasingly tangled, leading to the most affecting rendition of her beheading I think I’ve ever seen.
My only real complaint comes with the choice to adapt both books at the same time, as with the stage plays. First up, doing them together as one seems to ignore the fact that Mantel is writing a trilogy, and that we have ages to wait before the final part is published, so it could have been better spaced apart. And second, the source material is so ready for plunder that each book could easily have filled a six-part serial, and that would have allowed us to spend more time with the array of brilliant supporting performances.
Jessica Raine’s spiky but not unlikeable Jane Rochford, Charity Wakefield’s wryly flirtatious Mary Boleyn, Monica Dolan’s Alice More and her monkey, Harry Lloyd’s petulant Harry Percy, Thomas Arnold’s garrulous Holbein, Anton Lesser’s manipulative Thomas More, Mark Gatiss’ sibilant Stephen Gardiner, Saskia Reeves’ endlessly compassionate Johane, the list goes on and on and not a one of them put a foot wrong. So rich and detailed are the characters that even if they only get the one scene, they’re still so impressively fully realised.
A brilliant piece of drama then, unafraid to showcase quiet intelligence and measured detail, and a superb piece of adaptation from Straughan, capturing so much of what makes Mantel’s envisioning of history as a real place so compelling, and transferring it so effectively to the small screen.