The first big BBC drama of the year is an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Expectations were high for the transferral of these stylish works to the small screen. Mantel’s fresh perspective on Henry VIII’s reign revived a period of history that can sometimes feel too well-worn. Most people know the story of Henry and his six wives, usually encountering them at school. The main players’ characterisation in popular culture often descends into stereotype. The King is charismatic but capricious and petulant; Anne Boleyn is the femme fatale schemer; Thomas More the saintly advisor, and Thomas Cromwell the Machiavellian bureaucrat, early modern ancestor of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.
Wolf Hall’s genius lies in its focus on the character of Thomas Cromwell (Anton Lesser); she fleshes him out from a devious councillor to a meritocratic businessman, lawyer, and adventurer. He rises from humble beginnings as a blacksmith’s son, to Italian mercenary, to loyal friend and employee of the influential Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) despite his Protestant reformist leanings (he reads banned books).
Mantel has given the BBC a gift of a character, which it gratefully recreates. Here, the depiction of Cromwell is a far cry from his thuggish-looking Holbein portrait. In fact, he looks rather kindly, with sad eyes and pensive features. He does everything quietly; his first speech is an inaudible whisper in Wolsey’s ear as he emerges from the shadows, using lawyer tricks to delay the Cardinal’s arrest. Theatre actor Mark Rylance is a great choice for the lead role, guiding the audience through the political manoeuvrings and petty rivalries of the Tudor court with aplomb. Courtiers and nobles use Cromwell for his astuteness while at the same time scorn his low birth and self-made prosperity, an element which immediately places the modern audience on his side. The production of the show is masterful, from the music to the costumes, which are probably the most accurate seen on television for a while. The background noises, the creaking of the floorboards, the crackle of the fireplace, all create a sense of authenticity, of a fully-lived in world. The premiere opens with our protagonist witnessing the downfall of his master the Cardinal, after failing to aid King Henry in pursuit of a new wife and male heir. Wolsey’s unceremonious dismissal and exile is inter-cut with flashbacks to the beginning of the King’s Great Matter, and the seemingly secure Wolsey’s plans to obtain a divorce from Rome. Cromwell’s home life is also explored, and he throws himself into trying to rescue the Cardinal and return him to the King’s favour. Henry and Anne are not shown on screen until relatively late in the running time. This delay creates anticipation for the unveiling of their characters; meanwhile their actions are mulled over by the others trying to strengthen their own hand, deciding which cards to play.
In the second episode, Cromwell continues to petition the King to take pity on Wolsey, earning royal respect for his loyalty. He also has further interactions with other courtly figures, featuring Anne, dinner at Thomas More’s house, and a proposition by Mary Boleyn. He calmly takes note of those who deserted Wolsey’s household and took up new positions at court, together with those who openly mock the Cardinal’s disgrace. Despite the overall sympathetic portrayal, Cromwell’s characterisation retains the ruthless streak of the historical personage. The cast is strong across the board. Damian Lewis seems almost too calm and dignified for King Henry, but nevertheless delivers a strong performance. Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn is not given much space; she is merely given the job of looking bored and haughty. There might be some controversy about the way Thomas More is depicted as fanatical and controlling, triumphing over Wolsey’s fall by taking his place as Chancellor. The two Thomases seem to be posed as mirror images of each other; by becoming Cromwell’s advocates, Mantel and the show-creators seem to think it necessary to denigrate More’s character, perhaps excessively so.
Wolf Hall won’t be for everyone; the pace is not hasty and the drama is not sensational. Yet, as a cerebral historical series with a masterful lead actor, it comes highly recommended, especially for Tudor fans.