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Wolf Hall

Historical novels set in 16th-century England – especially accounts of the marital woes of Henry VIII – usually follow a Hollywood-friendly template of heaving bodices, well-filled hose and pointy-bearded intriguers.

In the hands of Hilary Mantel, Tudor kitsch becomes something darker and less digestible. Wolf Hall takes a forensic slice through a nation caught between feudalism and capitalism, the Middle Ages and modernity, Catholicism and the revolutionary doctrines emerging from the Continent.

Memories of the disastrous dynastic wars of the previous century are still fresh, and fears of another are growing. As there is little national, so there is no personal, security: noble and commoner alike are only ever a step away from their legal transformation into a mangled corpse or a smouldering residue of “mud, grease, charred bone”.

Mantel’s hero for this age of uncertainty is Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to one of the highest offices of the land before fatally offending Henry himself.

The novel, largely set from 1527 onwards, traces the crest of his career – his elevation from trusted servant of Cardinal Wolsey to the cardinal’s own position as Henry’s most loyal servant. Cromwell, whose reputation as a villainous schemer was cemented in A Man for All Seasons, seems a perverse choice of hero. But this Cromwell is resolutely modern: a lawyer, accountant, merchant, arbitrator and inventive provider of what would now be called financial services.

In the midst of superstition, corruption and brutality, he is a champion of reason and – unlike other, less scrupulous members of the nobility – of the rule of law. Mantel also turns his rival Thomas More’s reputation on its head; he is less a saint than a sneering fanatic who bullies his wife and courts his own execution.

Much of Cromwell’s polish is acquired in the service of Wolsey, an irresistible figure, “like a great leopard”, comfortable, charming and humane, who will “burn books, but not men”.

The cardinal’s fall from favour in 1529 thrusts Cromwell into a court consumed by manoeuv­ring to extricate Henry from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and England from its duty of obedience to the pope.

Wolf Hall gives an intricate but absorbing account of the tussle between the vested interests around the jilted queen and the rising favourite, Anne Boleyn, led by Anne’s uncle the Duke of Norfolk. The verbal fencing of court life plays to Mantel’s own biting humour: Boleyn, “a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes”, develops a reluctant respect for Cromwell when he replies: “You may be, I hardly know you,” to her sarcastic suggestion that she is “a simple person”.

Mantel’s last novel, Beyond Black, was a dark comedy about mediums and spiritualism, and Wolf Hall’s characters are similarly prey to charlatanry and obfuscation. Wolsey advises his protégé to “find out what people wear under their clothes”: discoveries that invariably reflect the cruelties and superstitions of the age. The Duke of Norfolk rattles when he moves because of scores of concealed holy medals and relics, More “wears a jerkin of horsehair”, and after Wolsey’s death in 1530, his servant finds another such instrument of mortification beneath the cardinal’s sumptuous robes – a horsehair belt.

Thomas Cromwell finds all this alternately sad and ridiculous. Mantel garlands him with enlightened virtues, some of which verge on the anachronistic: he loves dogs, is a Europhile with a taste for torta di funghi, and observes to Henry that overhunting has wiped out England’s bears, wolves and wild boar. He is a kind husband, father and patron to a large household, as well as a freethinker who keeps a pirated edition of Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible.

Even when he loses his wife and children to disease, he refuses to take comfort in cant: “It’s not the hand of God kills our children. It’s disease and hunger and war, rat-bites and bad air and the miasma from plague pits.” All this might be a bit much, were he not also something of a bruiser: Wolsey says he looks “like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs low men tow about on ropes”.

Mantel’s prose, like her hero, is witty and tough-minded. “That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes,” Cromwell tells Henry when the outraged king demands if he should “cower” at home rather than go to war.

The dialogue slips between English, Latin, Spanish, French, Flemish, Greek and the slang of Putney boatmen; Cromwell, as a professional middleman and polyglot, must make sense of a world awash with new words and ideas. “I am always translating,” he thinks, “if not language to language, then person to person.” (Thomas More, by contrast, “would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you”.)

The novel ends abruptly in 1535, bitten off before the events that loom over its pages: Boleyn’s execution and Cromwell’s own downfall at the hands of her uncle. “It is time to say what England is . . . It is time to say what a king is,” Cromwell resolves, in the upheaval over Henry’s remarriage.

He may not be a romantic hero, but Wolf Hall’s lawyer is, for a short while at least, the man for changing times.

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, 653pp, £18.99

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.