In Wolf Hall, the acclaimed series based on Hilary Mantel’s award-winning books about that Machiavellian manipulator of Tudor politics, Thomas Cromwell, the atmospherics consist of shadows. With sets lit only by candlelight and looking like something out of a Rembrandt painting, it brilliantly captures the dark and tangled web of intrigue, deception, and betrayal that characterized one of the most discussed periods in English history.
I left a comment the other day on the New York Times blog that’s been providing a weekly recap of the episodes, where I took umbrage with the writer’s observation that Wolf Hall is “Showtime’s ‘The Tudors’ without the bare breasts.” To compare that mayhem of outrageous historical license with this effort is — to hurl a common epithet from the Tudor era — heresy.
The production rests almost entirely on actor Mark Rylance’s engrossing portrayal of the man who rose to be Henry VIII’s right hand — and hatchet man — in the turbulent period of England’s separation from the Catholic Church, an event whose seeds were planted in 1527 with Henry’s request to the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The king was ruthless in his desire to marry and make Anne Boleyn his second queen with the purpose of procuring a male heir, and tragic fates awaited many who dared to stand in his way. (Which ultimately included the very same woman who was the catalyst for all the bloodshed, as we know. There are no more apt words than Shakespeare’s “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” when it comes to the eventually decapitated Boleyn.)
Throughout history, Thomas Cromwell has been portrayed rather one-dimensionally as an opportunistic facilitator for a monarch whose power lust grew to know no bounds. What sets this revisionist characterization apart are the psychological undertones that lend a certain humanity to a figure who’s been basically pigeonholed as a cold-blooded consigliere whose main job was handling Henry’s dirty work. (Indeed, the famous depiction by the court painter, Hans Holbein, of the stern-faced chief minister shows a man you probably wouldn’t want to cross.)
The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is keenly self-aware of his more devious personal traits (“Born sneaky. Can’t help it,” he impishly imparts at one point) yet is seemingly more wise pragmatist than cutthroat predator. Born of a blacksmith father who inflicted horrific beatings on a terrified son, losing a beloved wife and two daughters to the dreaded “sweating sickness” that played roulette on the English people throughout much of the 16th Century, Cromwell had seen enough to render him cynical of any of life’s illusions.
His world-weary eyes survey with precise intuition the characters at play in a royal court brimming with duplicity and covert machinations. But say what you will about his intentions, Cromwell was perversely loyal to those whom he pledged allegiance (though some may argue only as long as it served his purposes; he quickly threw Anne Boleyn under the horse when he saw Henry’s interest waning in her). That flagging interest paved the way to the Wolf Hall of the book’s title: the family estate of Jane Seymour, the woman next to be pursued by Henry as the plotting began to rid himself of Anne, with Cromwell as assiduous enabler.
Spoiler alerts don’t apply to historical events, so no warning is necessary to reveal that Cromwell was to meet the same destiny he so zealously imparted on others, when Henry had him executed in 1540. It’s just one of those twists of fate that are part of the reason the Tudor period has held a permanent fascination through the ages: the irony of Anne Boleyn, discarded and killed for failing to produce a male heir, but triumphing from the grave by way of her daughter Elizabeth I, eventually one of Britain’s greatest monarchs; the death soon after childbirth of Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour, who managed to produce a boy but lost her life in the process; her son, the future Edward VI, dying at the premature age of 15.
In another irony, Cromwell once wrote, “My prayer is that God give me no longer life than I shall be glad to use mine office in edification, and not in destruction.” Not sure many of his victims would have concurred with that thought, but it’s the side of Cromwell that Hilary Mantel chose to explore in Wolf Hall, and it’s what makes both her novels and this series, anchored by a magnificently nuanced performance, so memorable.
Wolf Hall (which wraps up on PBS next weekend) is a refreshingly intelligent and thoughtful recreation of a period of history which is so often farcically drawn with reckless disregard of the boundaries between truth and fiction. It’s a treat for serious-minded Tudor aficionados everywhere.