Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.
By this author
Flickering candle flames in chiaroscuro-drenched rooms. Sunbeams that stream through castle windows, casting clear patterns on the floor. Innumerable shots in the engrossing six-hour miniseries Wolf Hall seem to scrupulously define—even call attention to—to the sources of natural light that the tale’s 16th-century characters depend on. Of course, resonant visuals and careful historic touches are what you’d expect from pedigreed programming like Wolf Hall, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning novels that airs April 5-May 10, as part of PBS’s Masterpiece programming.
But the meticulous lighting here amounts to more than just pretty cinematography and check-the-boxes historical verisimilitude: It contributes to one of the salient themes of the miniseries, which chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who becomes the chief fixer for King Henry VIII. Amidst the power struggles and religious turmoil of Tudor England, Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is a lawyer whose level head and supreme competence become essential to Henry (Damian Lewis), especially when the monarch decides to get rid of Wife # 2, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). In the larger scheme of things, Cromwell is essentially a forerunner of the modern era. He is a capitalist—a player in an information economy—living amidst the dying embers of feudalism. He is a self-made man, surrounded by people accustomed to a rigid social order.
The luminous candle flames and daylight-channeling windows in the televised Wolf Hall, directed by Peter Kosminsky, underscore the contrast between Cromwell and his environment. Surrounded as we are by bulbs and glowing screens, it is hard to imagine functioning in the years before electricity. For Cromwell, such a dispensation was normal—and yet, in this telling, he is able to analyze financial and legal realities as efficiently as any accountant-turned-lawyer living in calculator-and-legal-database times.
A curious shift occurs towards the end of the new documentary “A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times,” premiering on PBS on Monday, May 5. Up to this point in Samantha Grant’s thorough, thoughtful look back at the notorious newspaper scandal, Blair has come across largely as a troubled sufferer—a victim of mental illness who made a series of egregiously terrible judgment calls while coping with intense workplace pressure.
There is something profound in the literary trope of the odd couple. It may be the cliché that has launched innumerable forgettable buddy comedies and cop dramas, but the notion that two drastically dissimilar people—Holmes and Watson; Harold and Maude; Oscar Madison and Felix Unger—can value each other, and even function as a unit, implies an inspiring faith in human affection, loyalty and understanding.
That underlying resonance just adds to the appeal of Will Thomas’s marvelous mystery novels, which center on an oddball pair of Victorian sleuths—or, as they prefer to be called, “enquiry agents”—named Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn. Intensely colorful and atmospheric, filled with remarkably vivid (and sometimes eccentric) characters, and distinguished above all by a vision of a very cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse Victorian London, the series will receive a long-awaited new installment with the upcoming publication of “Fatal Enquiry,” scheduled for May (Minotaur Books).
The series kicked off a decade ago with the publication of “Some Danger Involved,” a high-stakes whodunit that introduced Barker, a former sea captain whose expertise includes encyclopedic knowledge of the Orient, as well as of London, and an intimidating command of weaponry and the martial arts. When he hires the endearing young Oxford University dropout Llewelyn as an assistant, the two make an improbable team. Barker is a tough, hard-headed, multilingual world-traveler whose demeanor tends toward terse intensity; Llewelyn—the narrator of the books—is an amiable, callow, novel-reading romantic who has survived a tragic past with a smart-alecky sense of humor.
If, like me, you are counting down the hours to Masterpiece Mystery!’s “Sherlock” Season 3 (launching later this month), you may appreciate the whodunit quotient in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” a very interesting documentary airing tonight, Jan. 7, 8:00-10:00 pm ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the American Experience series.
Could a theatrical performance be a kind of prayer?
The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 246 pp.
The Great Charles Dickens Scandal
Yale University Press, $30, 215 pp.
Have good manners ever earned such scorn and tribulation? That question might run through your mind as you watch Parade’s End, the gripping, poignant, and gorgeously filmed miniseries debuting on HBO February 26, 27, and 28. Based on a tetralogy of novels by Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End chronicles the ordeals of a stubbornly honorable young British aristocrat, Christopher Tietjens, in the Edwardian age’s waning years.
The language of the Bible haunts the latest documentary by Ken Burns. There are descriptions of “plagues” that sound like the book of Exodus. At one point, a camera zooms in on an old newspaper bearing a citation from Ezekiel. At another, a solemn voice-over, reading from the work of a long-ago journalist, alludes to Hosea 8:7—“They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”
No-holds-barred mysticism rarely finds its way to the contemporary American stage. But this fall, the Folger Theatre, in Washington, D.C., is musing on humanitys thirst for the divine. Through Nov.
When you open City of Bohane, you’re opening not just a novel, but a Fodor’s guide to a metropolis—an eerie, vibrant, murderous domain with its own grittily mythic lore and customs and its own apocalyptic Celtic slang. The Irish novelist Kevin Barry provides a story, too, of course—a saga of gang warfare and ruthless hoodlums vying for power and love—and he infuses it with a memorable jazzy lyricism. But it’s the alluringly seamy geography you’ll remember.
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