Hilary Mantel: Return to Wolf Hall, review: Fascinating road map of a writer’s mind

Return to Wolf Hall succeeds in finding beauty in a life spent staring at the harsh light of a laptop screen

Annie Lord
Friday 06 March 2020 17:32 GMT
Hilary Mantel made a dame

We like to think of writers as red-wine drunk bohemians scribbling on napkins in hotels and taxi ranks. In reality, though, the life of an author isn't as interesting as that. BBC2's documentary about Hilary Mantel, Return to Wolf Hall, succeeds in finding beauty in a life spent staring at the harsh light of a laptop screen.

Made in the six-month run-up to the publication of The Mirror and the Light the final book in Mantel’s Booker-winning Tudor trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Return to Wolf Hall follows Mantel as she recounts the forces that shaped her. From the crumbling remains of her primary school to the council house in Derbyshire she grew up in, we see the places that formed one of the most brilliant minds of our age.

Rather than focusing on her literary inspirations or labouring the ways her work has been informed by the thinking of psychiatrist RD Laing, the documentary excavates the small happenings that have shaped Mantel’s work. Her endlessly chatty Irish grannies who gave her an instinct for a good story. Her military-minded father from who she learnt to be patient and enduring when combing through the facts. Her inborn sense of the supernatural which enables ghosts to crawl out of the specifics of Tudor courtrooms and Benedictine monasteries.

We hear about Mantel’s interests – body image, the women’s movement, nationalism, the elitism of the church – and then we hear from passages in the books where these interests are explored. Where other autobiographical documentaries often read books over shots of landscapes or old photos, here the words are performed by actors. It’s better this way – you find yourself further immersed in the story when someone’s snarling it into the camera lens.

Return to Wolf Hall largely rests on the skill of Mantel’s exposition, but thankfully her words are almost as beautiful spoken out loud as they are when she puts them onto the page. During a discussion of how to bring past into the present, she speaks of orienting her mind into “a world where the loudest sound people have ever heard is that of thunder”. When remembering seeing a cruel school teacher pulling a boy into her office, Mantel describes how they were planning to “punish him in some way that required privacy”.

One could safely assume a documentary about a woman who spends her days combing through old court records or studying diagrams about Tudor cowhide treatments might not be the richest material for documentary. Yet through her history, the one she wrote and the one she lived, the prosaic becomes poetic.

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