Thursday, October 22, 2015

11 Movies for Fans of "Wolf Hall"

Having given you a list of books sure to please the fans of Wolf Hall last month, it seemed apropos to follow up with a list of movies sure to do the same. There is of course the recent television adaptation of Wolf Hall, as well as the Showtime series The Tudors, which, though it deviates from historical record at times, makes fewer such deviations in service to sensationalism than one might expect. The Tudors have been the subject of numerous films, of ranging quality: Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), a beautifully mounted and lyrically acted drama deeply in sympathy with Anne Boleyn, though it suffers from overly stately pacing; The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), an enormously entertaining, though historically inaccurate film, with an iconic performance by Charles Laughton and a deliciously witty, even proto-feminist turn by Elsa Lanchester as Anne of Cleves; The Sword and the Rose (1953), a sumptuous costume drama produced by Walt Disney (reviewed here) starring one of my favorites, Glynis Johns; and there are dozens more. In particular, many, many films have been made about Elizabeth I and she has been played by such luminaries as Cate Blanchett, Bette Davis, Judi Dench, Flora Robson, and Helen Mirren, but by far my favorite adaptation of the queen's life is The Virgin Queen (2005), starring Anne-Marie Duff and Tom Hardy. However, it is easy indeed to find lists of films about the Tudors; the following, instead, is a list of films that should prove enjoyable to the enthusiastic reader of Wolf Hall, none of them directly about the Tudor monarchs.

Andrei Rublyev (1966)
Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece, set in fifteenth-century, pre-Tsarist Russia, examines the religious and political turbulence of the period through the narrative, largely invented, of the life of the renowned icon painter Andrei Rublev. Numerous controversies dogged the film's release; in the Soviet Union, its ambiguous, yet clearly critical dissection of repressive regimes that practice artistic and religious censorship, as well as the seriousness and near-piety of its treatment of Christianity, ruffled feathers, while both there and abroad, some scenes of brutal violence were criticized. In common with Mantel's novel, the film shares a deeply complex and nuanced examination of politics, Christianity, state violence, and artistic expression (what a treat we might have if Mantel were to extend her trilogy with a companion novel from the point of view of Holbein!).

Becket (1964)
Starring Richard Burton as Thomas Becket and Peter O'Toole as Henry II, this award-winning drama departs significantly from history, but delivers a stirring and deeply satisfying spectacle. The film examines the conflict between monarchy and church as they vie for power, both spiritual and temporal, through the foundering of the (possibly fictional) friendship of Henry and Becket, after Becket is appointed archbishop of Canterbury. Largely a chance for its stars to give knock-out performances, the film sometimes lags and shows its theatrical seams, but for all that, it's well worth watching, although for Americans unfamiliar with English history and particularly Becket's monumental reputation as a saint and martyr it may prove challenging (though the reader of Mantel's trilogy should catch on fast) .

Chimes at Midnight (1965)
In my opinion, Orson Welles's greatest masterpiece is this Shakespearean drama, in which he plays Falstaff and was never more brilliant. With an incredible cast of legendary actors, including John Gielgud, Keith Baxter, Jeanne Moreau, and Ralph Richardson providing the narration, the tragicomedy of Henry V's transformation from roguish, whoring scalawag to the hero of Agincourt is juxtaposed with the unhappy ruination of his former father figure and drinking buddy, Falstaff. The script is cobbled together from five of Shakespeare's plays, adapted by Welles himself, and despite the obvious license taken, I consider it the best adaptation of Shakespeare of all time, as well as one of the finest depictions of the medieval period. The battle scenes in particular are extraordinarily stirring, showing the brutality of medieval combat in all its chaos and strange intimacy. I imagine Mantel's Cromwell would enjoy sharing a cup of sack with Welles's Falstaff.

Ivan the Terrible (1944)
Sergei Eisenstein's epic biopic of Ivan the Terrible, originally commissioned by Stalin only to be banned when the dictator took issue with the political content of the second part, is among the greatest Russian films ever made. It is also a thorny, difficult, and at times maddening film to watch. Color sequences are spliced into the largely black and white film, and grandiose displays of power and ruthlessness contrast with joyous scenes of feasting, gluttony, and dancing and small, unexpected moments of tenderness. Stalin identified strongly with the first coronated tsar of Russia, and perhaps the film's depiction of Ivan descending into increasing paranoia and delusion, treading decidedly over the line between the necessary brutality of an absolutist state and unhinged sadism, proved too much for the dictator's ego (and perhaps for the casual viewer). The obvious parallels between Ivan and Henry VIII, both men determined to unite their countries under their absolute control and both shockingly cruel to their wives and children, should interest the fan of Wolf Hall. The film also has a spectacular score by Sergei Prokofiev.

The Lion in Winter (1968)
Another historical drama centering around medieval monarchs, this film boasts one of the best screenplays ever, written by James Goldman adapting his own play. Over the celebration of the Christmas holiday in 1183, Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) hurl at each other the most venomous and brilliant insults they can muster, in their struggle to determine the succession of the throne. Henry favors John (Nigel Terry), while Eleanor favors Richard (Anthony Hopkins), and both are equally resolved to triumph over the other. Featuring a bold score, punctuated with clarion calls and a spirited choir, by John Barry, this film is superlatively good. The focus on monarchic power struggles, unorthodox marital arrangements, and linguistic parrying should prove delightful for the Mantel fan.

The Princess of Montpensier (2010)
One of my favorite films of recent years, Bertrand Tavernier's drama is set during the French Wars of Religion and stars Mélanie Thierry, Gaspard Ulliel, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, and Lambert Wilson. Marie (Thierry) is a lovely, naive noblewoman infatuated with the Duc de Guise (Ulliel), but married with little preparation to the jealous, immature Prince de Montpensier (Leprince-Ringuet). Their politically tactical yet emotionally tempestuous marriage becomes the fragile center of a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse as various men, from the Duc d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) to the Count de Chabannes (Wilson) covet the princess. The jewel-toned cinematography by Bruno de Keyzer sets off to stunning effect the gorgeous costumes by Caroline de Vivaise, who makes use of a dizzying array of richly sumptuous colors and textures, while the score by Philippe Sarde judiciously blends a dramatically modern, rhythmically intense musicality with the instrumentation and vocal style of the sixteenth century. This film examines royal politics, religious schism and warfare, infidelity and gender, and the nature of love, all subjects examined with equal perspicacity by Mantel.

Queen Margot (1994)
I must confess my feelings about this film are mixed, as it proves a rather strange concoction of political intrigue, morbidly graphic violence, intense, almost nihilistic bitterness, and outrageously overblown romanticism. The operatic tone of the film is perhaps justified by its historically-based plot, also set during the French Wars of Religion. The protagonists are the French monarchs, back-stabbing, brutal men and women willing to poison, shoot, rape, bludgeon, or otherwise disable their own family members in their contest for control of the throne. The cast is excellent and universally visually striking and includes Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Vincent Pérez, and Virna Lisi. Few films outside the horror genre use blood to such dramatic effect, whether it is oozing through a prince's skin, gushing over Margot's white gown, or crusted over the embalmed head of a lover. If the film fails to convince us of the trope of true love, it reaches far more interesting, and embittered, conclusions about power and compassion, or rather lack thereof. The French court of Charles IX, in this film at least, seems to have been an even bloodier, more murderous one than that of Henry VIII.

Richard III (1954)
Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Richard III is the least critically acclaimed of his Shakespeare films, dogged with complaints of historical inaccuracy (rather silly, given that a number of these inaccuracies derive from the play) and Olivier's domination (again, a complaint that could equally be lodged against the play). Though having seen the play live with Mark Rylance as the treacherous and ill-fated monarch, I find this version less compelling than I did at first, it remains one of the finest films made from Shakespeare. Olivier of course heads the cast, which includes Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Cedric Hardwicke, and Claire Bloom, and this is very much his own project - he directed, produced, and adapted the screenplay. Richard III was of course defeated by the Lancasters, who crowned Henry VII, father to Henry VIII.

A Royal Affair (2012)
This critically acclaimed Danish film stars the astonishing actor Mikkel Følsgaard, in his extraordinary first performance as Christian VII, Denmark's severely mentally disturbed monarch in the eighteenth century. Alicia Vikander plays his unhappy wife Caroline Matilde and Mads Mikkelsen plays Johann Friedrich Struensee, the German physician who became powerful enough at court to implement Enlightenment policies under the aegis of the absolutist monarchy. The story, far less familiar than the dramas of the English and French crowns, is absolutely fascinating, examining with intelligence the dangerous power of ideas and the complexities of relationships torn apart by sex, madness, and political responsibility. However, as good as the film is, Følsgaard is a miracle - it is impossible to dismiss the monarch as simply sadistic and to be loathed or sick and to be pitied. His performance is one of the finest of the current century, across all cinematic genres.

The Seventh Seal (1957)
Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece about a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) who encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot) and challenges him to a game of chess in plague-ridden Sweden is populated by iconic imagery that continues to resonate in film, particularly the horror genre, today. Its monumental reputation is deserved, but for all that, there is an unexpected lightness to this film (like Mantel's Cromwell's unlooked-for flashes of humor) that counteracts the intense despairs suffered by the film's characters. Even as entire families perish, a woman is burned at the stake for witchcraft, graves are robbed, and women raped, the knight's mission, born of a profound disillusionment, is to perform one meaningful deed before he dies and this mission, like the final indelible image of the dance of death in the final frames, is one of hope. Though Bergman's theme, as in so many of his films, is God's silence, The Seventh Seal, even as it embraces despair, is anything but nihilistic. Far darker than Mantel's Cromwell trilogy, this film nevertheless shares with it many themes: religious conflict, moral responsibility both collective and individual, the mystery of death, and calculation as an art form.

Throne of Blood (1957)
Based on Shakespeare's Macbeth (and according to critic Harold Bloom, the best adaptation of the material), Akira Kurosawa's film recasts the story in feudal Japan, where samurai lords vie for power. Starring the great Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu (the Macbeth role) and Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji Washizu (Lady Macbeth), the film has a distinctly Japanese style; cinematographer Asakazu Nakai makes stunning use of the genuine fog - the movie was filmed largely out of doors on the slopes of Mount Fuji - to evoke both the terrifying chaos and ever shifting realities of power of the feudal world and the moral haze into which Washizu descends ever more deeply. Though this film has no character to match the calculated mystery and unnervingly flexible instrumentality of Cromwell, perhaps such havoc and violent ends would have been Henry's lot had Anne Boleyn succeeded in convincing him to execute his inscrutable right-hand man.


  1. This is still one of the best movie quotes ever (from "The Lion in Winter"):

    Henry: I marvel at you after all these years. Still like a democratic drawbridge: going down for everybody.
    Eleanor: At my age there's not much traffic anymore.

    And the whole movie is full of these brilliant lines!

    1. Agreed - the screenplay for that movie is absolutely spectacular! I love:

      Eleanor: Did you ever love me?
      Henry: No.
      Eleanor: Good. That will make this pleasanter.