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Wolf Hall’s £20,000 candle budget was worth every penny

The candles are everything.

Looking at Wolf Hall over the last few weeks has been a source of great joy to me. Of course, I’m also watching for the dialogue and performances – Mark Rylance in particular is astounding – but the way the adaptation looks on screen is really what stays with me.

The most recent episode, the fourth in the six-part series, provided an especially stunning example of this. The adaptation has a scene in which Cromwell is sitting for a portrait, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. The resulting painting is probably the most recognisable image we have of him, well-known to most from their schooldays studying the Tudors.

Casually, without making a big fuss about it, the TV adaptation exactly recreated this moment. Everything from Rylance’s pose to the lighting to the wallpaper behind him was just perfect:

Let’s look at that a bit closer:

Even the tilt of Rylance’s head is exact – an illustration of how very precise and studied his performance is, for all its apparent naturalism. You can see this scene for yourself on iPlayer at about 36 minutes in.

Just for good measure, here’s what is happening on the other side of the canvas:

Holbein was arguably the foremost image-maker of the sixteenth century, and a very important visual source for Hilary Mantel. Speaking on an episode of Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation radio series devoted to the Hanseatic League, she described the artist’s direct style producing paintings that are “like a mugshot, done by a genius”. This is surely a style that chimes well with Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless pragmatist.

As we see Holbein painting the portrait in the drama, there’s a lot of natural light coming in through the windows behind him (as there doubtless would have been at the real sitting, so he could see what he was doing). But the most remarkable scenes in Wolf Hall are the ones that are almost completely candlelit – I’m thinking particularly of the sequence in the second episode where Cromwell is summoned to Henry in the middle of the night.

All the action, from when the messenger first comes knocking...

...to the conversation with the king...

...to Cromwell’s safe arrival home and his encounter with his sister-in-law...

...takes place entirely by candelight. This is a shadowy, unknowable world where you must feel your way if you are to stay on the right side of power.

Given how frequently they are used, it really comes as no surprise that the candle budget for the programme was £20,000 – money well spent, I’d say. Speaking to Kirsty Lang on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Wolf Hall’s director of photography Graham Finney explained why the candles were so important (interview begins at 12.30):

It was a solution to a problem, really – Peter [Kosminsky, the director] wanted to film the whole of Wolf Hall in a documentary style, hand held, that often meant walking into a room and seeing the whole room and then turning around and seeing the other part of the room. In a Grade I listed building, there’s nowhere to put a light and so we thought, well, can we do it with candlelight? We did some early tests and it was extraordinary how much we could get away with.

He goes on to explain that Kosminsky was “blown away” by the effect of all the candles in the Globe’s recent production of The Duchess of Malfi in the newly-opened Sam Wanamaker Theatre. Luckily, camera technology is now such that it’s possible to film with this kind of light without even having to splash out on particularly specialised equipment. Finney explained:

The camera we used is an Arriflex Alexa, a high end digital camera used in feature films and top dramas. We used that in concert with a new type of lens that came out last year, very very fast, which means it’s very light sensitive, it sucks in light – made by Leica. The two together delivered more than we thought they would, it’s really quite extraordinary. You could see more than your eye could see.

There you have it – Wolf Hall looks even better on screen than it would have done for the Tudors who were there at the time.

Now listen to Caroline Crampton and Tom Gatti discuss Wolf Hall on the NS podcast:

 

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Thus Bad Begins confirms Javier Marías as a master of the novel form

Marías’ masterful expression of his characters' psychological weather, combined with Margaret Jull Costa's gifted translation, makes for rewarding reading.

For those who love the novel as a form and not just as entertainment, Javier Marías is arguably the most rewarding writer working today. Marías, who has a self-professed fondness for English-language masters such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James, carries forward and vitally renews the great European tradition – a tradition that, rooted in Cervantes and digressive 18th-century writers such as Fielding and Sterne, found its high point in the work of Flaubert, Proust and Balzac, as well as the anglophone novelists from whom Marías has learned so well.

No one since James has used the sentence to such effect in exploring the workings of human psychology and this must have presented his translator, Margaret Jull Costa, with problems. It must be difficult to render Marías’s Spanish sentences, which are uniquely those of this novelist, into contemporary English without making them read like a sub-Jamesian imitation. That she succeeds is a mark of a truly gifted translator.

Following on from The Infatuations, his superb and moving 2011 novel (published in English in 2013), Marías’s new offering is, if anything, even more effective in conveying the psychological weather of those who, as his narrator here puts it:

. . . will never go beyond their own bounds, those who one knows early on will leave no trace or track and will barely be remembered once they disappear (they will be like falling snow that does not settle, like a lizard climbing up a sunny wall in summer . . . like the words, all those years ago, that a teacher painstakingly wrote on the blackboard only to erase them herself at the end of the class, or leave them to be erased by the next teacher to occupy the room) and about whom not even their nearest and dearest will have any anecdotes to recount.

Such a person (the narrator of The Infatuations, for example) may become “a silent witness, impartial and useless”, and only the “indifferent sentinel observing all our lives” – fate, perhaps, or a kind of autre monde novelist recounting the human story from some remote watchtower – is capable of seeing that these characters, who seem “to be just passing through or on temporary loan even while they’re alive . . . harbour stories that are far odder and more intriguing, clearer and more personal than the stories of the shrill exhibitionists who fill most of the globe with their racket”.

These characters are observers, sometimes devotees, of the lives of others. In his youth, Juan, who tells the bewildering and tragic story of Thus Bad Begins, was the personal assistant of the film-maker Eduardo Muriel, whose finest days are behind him but who still commands respect among those who love film for its own sake. Much of Muriel’s life has been spent, or rather wasted, on two kinds of compromise: first, the self-betrayals that everyone had to commit during the Franco dictatorship in order to pursue his or her craft; and second, the kind of financial wheeling and dealing that any film-maker has to endure to realise their vision in celluloid.

Somehow, he has come through honourably and it is clear that Juan admires him, both as a man and as an artist – which makes Muriel’s cruel treatment of the wife who adores him all the more puzzling. Why does the great artist hate the beautiful, long-suffering Beatriz Noguera and why does he show her such contempt? This is the mystery at the heart of Thus Bad Begins, a mystery that will leave Juan well out of his depth when he is charged by his hero to investigate a man called Jorge Van Vechten, about whom Muriel entertains dark, if initially rather vague, suspicions.

To disclose more of the plot here would undermine the suspense that Marías so carefully creates, although it should be stressed that this suspense is not only dramatic and psychological but also existential. Besides, there is so much else to enjoy here, from the characterisations to the grace of the prose as, sentence by elegant sentence, Marías glides with seeming inevitability first towards the main narrative’s denouement and then to an afterlife in which Juan, now an older man looking back at his former life, remains haunted by the past, even in the midst of present happiness. That past, however, is more than just a troubling memory. It is an ever-present warning that today’s happiness might be lost in a rash word or an impulsive gesture; in short, in the kind of unguarded action with which bad begins.

Having witnessed the events of the novel as Muriel’s assistant and sometime friend, Juan knows that there is no defence against that brooding, internal danger, other than a kind of wishful or superstitious thinking in which, rather than consigning what happened in the past to the past, he forces himself to “recover that vision, so that . . . reality can be restored and that forgotten yesterday can return the today, which, just for an instant, has slipped away from us”.

This is the novel’s last poignant moment. It is a reminder that, throughout, Marías has been uncovering a history of temps perdu, in a life, in a marriage and in a society shamed by the dictatorship with which it allowed itself to compromise for so long. 

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is published by Hamish Hamilton (512pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad