The story of Henry VIII, his many wives and the circumstances surrounding his break with Rome and the Catholic Church have been documented and dramatized many times in the last 6 centuries, but not often (if ever) has Thomas Cromwell been portrayed as the hero of the story as he is in Wolf Hall, the 6-episode BBC historical drama which debuts tonight on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater (I know, it’s called “Masterpiece” now, but old habits die hard). This has irritated historians ever since Hilary Mantel’s source novel debuted in 2009 (especially those who favor Thomas “A Man for All Seasons” More who does not come off well in this interpretation… at all), but they’re cheating themselves out of some top shelf television in the interest of protecting their domain.
Wolf Hall is historical fiction that takes the broad strokes of real life people and events and then takes artistic license in filling in the blanks. Mantel’s approach feels very much within the bounds of plausibility, and it serves her thematic purpose which is to elevate what Cromwell ultimately represents which is the rational “modern” world. Historians can debate whether Cromwell really was the decent man he’s portrayed as here and none of them will ever admit that history itself is a much fuzzier prospect than people realize or that the answer to the question of who Cromwell really was is probably “it depends on who you ask.” There’s a scene in a later episode where Cromwell laments that the history of mankind has been written by the monks, a group for whom he has no love. Mantel could well be saying the same thing about the intellectuals who have interpreted and jealously guarded their take on history ever since, but that’s probably the subject of an entirely different piece.
History aside, the thing about Wolf Hall is it’s either going to work as drama or it’s going to fail as drama. It totally works. It’s a little slow to get going, and the first episode especially tends to jump around in time as it introduces us to all the players and to set up all the situations, Stick with it because it all begins to pay off in subsequent episodes – I’ve watched four as of this writing. Though it is wound up in palace intrigue, this is not Game of Thrones. What it is though is sharp, subtle and unexpectedly entertaining. The first episode follows Cromwell as he rises to become the chief advisor to Cardinal Wolsey (the terrific Jonathan Pryce), the Archbishop of York who is quickly falling out of favor with Henry VIII (Homeland and Band of Brothers‘ Damian Lewis) because of his inability to convince the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Over the course of the first hour, Wolsey’s star falls despite Cromwell’s best efforts and the end finds the wily advisor insinuating himself into the spheres of both the King and Anne Boleyn, Wolsey’s sworn enemy but perhaps the key to saving him from exile.
The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is a doting father (though we find out his relationship with his son is strained and that his own father was cruel and abusive) and a loving if reserved husband. In his dour black wardrobe and his floppy black hat, he could be some kind of sad mortician. Indeed his weathered face at times looks haunted and reticent, but then suddenly it’ll brighten with mischievousness and you realize it’s a mistake to underestimate him as everyone in the story seems to do at first. Grown up on the continent, fluent in many languages, clever and armed with a very subtle sense of humor, he’s an enigma to his contemporaries (there’s a rumor floating around that he’s literally gotten away with murder), but kind of a Renaissance Man in a part of the world still struggling to throw off the Middle Ages. As such, he’s disliked by most everyone for one reason or another, but he’s always the right man to have at your side when things get tough. He’s rational, pragmatic and forward thinking when the rest of the world was superstitious, territorial and tearing itself apart. Now that I think about it, we could use a Cromwell right now, but that too is another piece.
All of the big historical names (and also the series’ most recognizable stars which include Joanne Whalley as Catherine, Bernard Hill as Norfolk, Anton Lesser as More, Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner and Mathieu Amalric as Chapuys) orbit around Cromwell. This is definitely the story from his perspective, though interestingly the title of the novel and series are a reference to the home of Jane Seymour who lurks in the background of the first few episodes and who we know will eventually succeed Boleyn.
As Cromwell, Mark Rylance is Wolf Hall‘s secret weapon though he is probably an unknown to American audiences. The 50-something actor has appeared in a few movies and on TV, but the bulk of his work has been on stage, including heavy dose of Shakespeare. In fact, he was artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from 1995 to 2005. Like his character, he’s easy to underestimate at first, but as the subtle layers of his portrayal are revealed, he grows on you and so does the show. Don’t be surprised when his name turns up on Emmy lists later this year.
Wolf Hall is sumptuously mounted as you’d expect from one of these BBC historical productions, the Beeb appears to have an endless supply of period costumery and the entire country seems to be filled with ready-made castle and manor sets of which Wolf Hall takes maximum advantage. It somehow avoids that stodgy, stuffy mustiness you might expect from one of these historical pageants, however. I’m crediting that, in part, to the hand-held cinematography which endows the proceedings with a modern urgency it might not otherwise have. The dialogue too avoids much of the formalism inflicted upon this kind of period piece. With its occasional modern sounding turns of phrase, I can picture Wolf Hall turning off the linguists as much as the hard core historians, but if you’re going to nitpick, you’re going to nitpick. Enjoy your textbooks, jerks. I’ll be digging in to Wolf Hall on PBS every Sunday into May and I recommend you do to.