His majesty’s portrait: BBC’s “Wolf Hall” as Renassiance painting

I just finished up “Wolf Hall.” The show is fascinating in its presentation. It is a show that I would have once thought impossible to pull off in America—now I only think it would be really, really hard. The performances have been praised: Damian Lewis’s lusty, distant Henry VIII, Claire Foy’s biting Anne Boleyn and Mark Rylance’s meditative, measured Cromwell. Fellow WordPressers Djelloul Marbrook and Cl1nettc have noted that silence is important to the show, Cromwell’s silence in particular. But silence serves another purpose; it takes the focus off the dialogue and puts it on the visuals, and “Wolf Hall” is an old fashioned visual treat–16th century, that is.

“Wolf Hall” is well produced in a low-key way. It is not stylish; rather, it is stylized. It looks like a Renaissance painting the way that Peter Greenaway’s “Nightwatching,” an excellent (if long) examination of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” did. Actors arrange themselves within the frame and hold themselves in poses that recall Renaissance portraiture–legs jutted out, heads turned, arms on hips in manly pose–particularly Rylance, who frequently resembles Hans Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell.

An interesting complaint I’ve heard about the show is that it’s dark. Well, it is dark, but I imagine that was done to preserve historical accuracy (they didn’t have a lot of fill lights in the Middle Ages). The reliance on natural light sources and the resulting heavy shadows also increases the show’s portraiture feel. It’s not quite chiaroscuro lighting, but it does give the impression of a Rembrandt painting, where darkness seems to gather on the borders of the composition and light seems to pool in the center.

Parts of the story are also told through visual symbols, through dreams and visions (the bizarre dinner of Boleyn that opens episode six; Cromwell imagining touching Boleyn’s breast in episode three). One of the show’s the most memorable examples of visual storytelling is in the fifth episode, which features a silent, impersonal explanation of Boleyn’s latest miscarriage (students of history, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that Boleyn has a miscarriage or two).

The scene opens with no faces, only feet and running legs. A dwarf woman–a member of Boleyn’s entourage–rocks back and forth upon the ground in apparent pain. Finally, with a groan, she draws a cloth doll from between her legs. After touching it briefly, she throws the doll to the ground, stomps on it, rises and abandons it. The camera pans and fixes on a blood-stained set of nightclothes. Boleyn’s fate is sealed in the next episode through a much simpler piece of visual storytelling: Her table is cleared, tablecloth and all, before she is taken to the Tower of London.

Film and television seem to have more in common with theater than other forms of art; they all have directors and actors, sets and scripts. But in terms of storytelling methods, theater is a dialogue game, whereas film and television are visual art forms. Like Renaissance painting, there is a visual language to it. “Wolf Hall” has the right idea; television and film producers could learn a lot about their own art by visiting a museum.

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