Wolf Hall: Season One

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“Put Thomas Cromwell in a dungeon and by evening he’ll be sitting on cushions with jailers owing him money”, said Thomas More to his wife. That’s the premise we are bought into. But how does Cromwell do it? What does it take for an underdog to make that leap from being a low born to not only gain the confidence of his King, but even puppeteer his rule? As Cromwell himself puts it, he’s like the tamed lion, you may stroke it, but beware the claws. Six hours of methodically paced story telling with manic attention to detail that ends with an majestic embrace informs us like none other.

Peter Straughan’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel and Peter Kosminsky’s direction gently places us in Thomas’ orbital of power politics played by the wonderful Mark Rylance. He is ably supported by the talents of Jonathan Pryce as his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, Anton Lesser as the stubborn Thomas More, and Damian Lewis as King Henry. And Claire Foy, with her beaded garments and supercilious presence, is a joy to watch as Anne Boleyn. Can’t wait to see her play Elizabeth in the upcoming series, The Crown.

The beauty of the show has been the fine straddling of the anti-hero timeline. Cromwell is at the centre piece of so many wrongs from his childhood shown to us in flashback mode. And he is correcting them one by one. But is he connecting those dots consciously? Does he realise  or visualise them when one event triggers the other? Is he in control of this portion of his destiny, which is to become his legacy? Those painful moments compose and define what he turns into. One particular moment for example which keeps repeating itself in the show is the play where his ex-patron Wolsey is humiliated. Even when his hands are shivering wondering the prospect of losing out of favour with the King and having his head spiked, a glimpse into the play and its players makes him sure of the revenge that he needs to plot. The plan is not clear yet, but the motive is. This sinister side of Cromwell is deftly handled.

Most scenes are shot in the dark with only candles illuminating the place, and Thomas lurking somewhere, just like he prefers to be noticed for his deeds. And Henry is always in the limelight with his gorgeous royal presence, ambling around his palace yards like a peacock, making sure he matches his framed portraits in the palace. He is a bigger brute than Cromwell is, but you’d expect nothing less from a King. And Cromwell knows to be the snake his King wants him to be without ever turning into a viper in his master’s bosom. To top that, his master is his only “friend” in the whole country, rest either being paid informers or vengeful enemies plotting his decline. The ghost of Wolsey also reminds Cromwell once, “The King wanted a new wife. I didn’t get him one, and now I’m dead.”. This balance between high praise and poor death while keeping a poker-face is what makes this show a compelling viewing. This is television at its best.

Flowers: Season One

How do we classify a piece of work into its respective genre? Does such labelling serve anything more than a marketing necessity? Is that even a necessity in the first place? Flowers, the new TV show, is deemed a ‘dark comedy’ which, quite frankly it isn’t.

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The motley members of the Flowers family are led into a anniversary party, a scheme pulled up under the guise of exhibiting happiness by the hysterical mum of the household, Deborah. Her husband Maurice isn’t supportive of this idea having just failed at a bid to commit suicide, which is witnessed by his aged mother who suffers from dementia. Granny Flower dies trying to hide the hangman’s rope in the attic during the said anniversary party.

The twin children of the Flowers household are at odds with each other for their pursuit of a common suitor & unrealised personal dreams; the son being a incorrigible man-child who invents things (one of them deliriously titled ‘fumigating fondue machine’), and the daughter, a composer of melancholic music. Deborah teaches Trombone, evidences of which are not shown but left to our own better understanding of how they might transpire.

Such a premise informs us that dysfunctionality is at play here. As ludicrous and crude as it gets, we keep falling into the trap of believing that this show is a farce. Add to it a Japanese illustrator with malapropisms, we enter a cultural stereotype without realising that he might be the most adjusted character of all. And he isn’t Japanese without a reason. We are made to realise all of that only in due time. No rush here to present and load us with oddball occurrences, dream sequences, poetic nuances and all what-about-ness before gently pulling the rug from under our feet, and mocking the viewer as though with the question ‘how good was that’.

For all its brilliance, what I still wonder is whether all the ground shifts the story made were organic. In the sense that, did the show remain true to what it set out to portray with its whimsical absurdity and dense writing? Dysfunctional families have been the quintessential flavour of fiction, but why label each as a comedy (dark or not). Not the perfect analogy, but the recent season of Veep had an episode titled ‘Mother’. Every exchange Selina makes with her dying/dead mother and her staff in that episode is cringe worthy, but it felt right labelling it dark comedy because it hit those notes consistently. We weren’t stupefied into horror or amazement, there was no need to question what we were watching because Selina kept just being her unpleasant self and was getting better(worse?) at it. The viewer knew she could be that way in such morbid times, yet needed to see it in action and thats what the show gave its viewers. That consistency of behaviour was what I found lacking in Flowers. I am glad the way the parts added to the sum in the end, but there was a tonal disparateness in every subsequent viewing which was hard to ignore. The characters turned more remorseful and hurt bound than simply being endlessly weird and closeted with one another. This made for good drama, while I thought I was headed towards a sitcom set piece and family homilies.

“The truth is sometimes like a toothbrush, and you only share that with people you really trust”, says Deborah. This very much applies to the show as well. Will Sharpe, the writer and director, takes us through his wonderfully imaginative mind, revealing as much about his characters as he hides. Every bit of production here is top notch starting from the disarrayed Flowers’ household filled with inventions of Donald, musical notes of Amy, recordings of Morris, the artworks of Shun etc. And of course the presence of Olivia Colman as Deborah. With such wonderful artistry at play, one can only pray for more and soon.