I’m returning to my fascination with the history of King Henry VIII and his wives and heirs with tonight’s review. Wolf Hall was a 6-part series, produced by BBC Two, adapted from two novels by Hilary Mantel, WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES. These books cover the life of Thomas Cromwell, a significant figure in King Henry’s court, from his youth through to his role the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn. I have no read either of the books, so I can’t comment on how faithful the TV series is to them, and can only judge the series on its own merits.
Written by Peter Straughan, and directed by Peter Kosminsky, these six hour-long episodes attempt to give new insight into the life and motivations of Thomas Cromwell. An interesting thing about historical fiction is how certain figures can be portrayed in vastly different ways in different adaptations. Sometimes a figure’s portrayal is based on the general consensus of the time, which can be changed as historians re-evaluate them. For example I grew up believing that French Queen Marie Antoinette was a frivolous spendthrift who cared nothing for her subjects and famously declared “let them eat cake!” But that’s not true. Other times a person’s portrayal is altered for dramatic purposes, depending the story that the creators want to tell. Another example, when it comes to Tudor history in particular, I’ve written before of the way I believe both Mary and Anne Boleyn were greatly mis-represented in film adaptation of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL.
Thomas Cromwell is generally portrayed as a scheming and somewhat duplicitous character. He rose to prominence in King Henry VIII’s court as an advisor to the King’s trusted Chancellor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, as the Cardinal attempted to obtain an annulment to Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon from the Pope. As Wolsey failed in this mission and fell from favor from the King, eventually being arrested, Cromwell managed to remain in favor and ally himself with Anne Boleyn and her family, eventually helping convince the King to break from Rome and form The Church of England. Yet as Anne eventually fell from for favor with the King, Cromwell would then lead the trial against her, which was full of false charges, which lead to her conviction and then death. Cromwell would then lead the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries in England on various false charges of abuse, until he eventually fell out of favor with the King himself and ended up beheaded. So just on the face of it, it’s easy to see how it looks like Cromwell was someone who easily switched allegiances and abandoned allies for his own benefit, but this series gives us a different perspective on the man.
Played by Mark Rylance (who played Anne Boleyn’s father in The Other Boleyn Girl), this Thomas Cromwell is a principled man who is simply doing what he has to, to survive in this world. A world run by a monarch with absolute power whose whims were sometimes unpredictable. Cromwell well also a “normal” man who rose in power during a time when only those of “noble birth” were expected to wield power (that’s one thing you can say about King Henry VIII, he was rather egalitarian, he valued competence over background), and this made him many enemies in court. So he constantly had to watch his back. Some details of his background which I’d been unaware of are filled in, such as him losing his first wife and two daughters all to deadly plague known as “the sweating sickness.” Rylance plays Cromwell as a quiet man who rarely shows his emotions, the better to keep people guessing as to what he’s planning. We also see his close relationship with his son Gregory (pre-Spider-Man Tom Holland) and nephew Richard (Joss Porter).
There is a weird subplot where Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) briefly pursues Cromwell romantically, and he is tempted, but ultimately it doesn’t work out. This seems like an unlikely occurrence and is not something I’ve seen in any other Tudor adaptations.
Damien Lewis is King Henry VIII, not exactly a leading character here, but his presence is always felt even when he’s not on-screen, which I’d imagine it was like for those living and working in his court in real life. Claire Foy plays Anne Boleyn, who is shown as a perhaps a bit cold-hearted here, but she does a good job, as does Joanne Whalley who stands out in her brief appearances as Katherine of Aragon. Another notable figure is Anton Lesser as Sir Thomas More, King Henry VIII’s former confidant who is usually portrayed as a more righteous and sympathetic figure but in this series is more of an antagonist (which, since it’s from the POV of Thomas Cromwell, certainly makes sense, whether it’s historically accurate or not). I also want to single out Jonathan Pryce’s performance as Cardinal Wolsey. But, really, there weren’t any weak links in this cast. It’s very well-acted and, despite not having the sex and violence of other adaptations of this time period, I found it very realistic and gripping, I was engaged from start to finish.
There is a third book in this series, which covers the rest of Thomas Cromwell’s life, from the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution to Cromwell’s own beheading, and a second miniseries adapting it has been announced as in the planning stages, but no firm plans as of yet. But even if this series turns out to be all we get, I think it’s more than satisfying and worth watching, I recommend it to any Tudorphile.
If you’re in American then, like me, you can check it out on Amazon Prime.