American viewers are in for another sumptuous serving of British television drama when Wolf Hall premieres on April 5. Based on the first two Booker prize-winning novels of Hilary Mantel’s planned trilogy, the six-part series centres on King Henry VIII’s “fixer,” Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540).
Do not confuse Thomas with Oliver, the parliamentarian who brought down King Charles I in 1649, although they were related. Cinema buffs may recall him as the sharp-toothed and unprincipled villain played by Leo McKern, who relentlessly pursues the saintly Sir Thomas More to execution in A Man for All Seasons (1966).
This is the major talking point from Wolf Hall. Who offers the right assessment — Robert Bolt, or Hilary Mantel? For many Roman Catholics, More has the status of a saint. Convent-educated Mantel turns convention on its head. Her More is a venomous misogynist and torturer who cannot conceive of a Christendom tolerating religious dissent. Her Cromwell, in contrast, is a mild-mannered family man who teaches his young daughters Latin.
In Mark Rylance’s characterization of Cromwell, silence or a mere look can be worth a thousand words. His characteristic pose is to stand by quietly, almost out of sight, while others incriminate themselves by their words. More (Anton Lesser) sums him up: “Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.”
Screenwriter Peter Straughan has crafted a clever and at times almost word-for-word adaptation of Mantel’s version of these men. Mantel combined exhaustive historical research with a novelist’s imagination to fill many gaps in the narrative, characterisation, and conversation. As she said in an interview as the television series unfolded in England: “My own method is to wrap the fiction around the documented record, to let imagination lead us by touch into rooms where history can’t shine a light.”
Historical research is a different craft than that of the novelist or television dramatist. Tracy Borman, a recent biographer of Cromwell, has argued that complexities can be ironed out in a work of fiction: “Because she is writing a novel, Hilary Mantel obviously feels she needs a goodie and baddie and so she tees Cromwell up as the goodie by making More the baddie.”
Early sequences introduce a young Cromwell, the son of a sadistic blacksmith from riverside Putney, west of London. He escapes England after an awful beating from his father. When he returns to England he is a mature man, schooled in the law and finance. Along the way he has acquired sympathy for the cause of the continental reformers and supports William Tyndale’s Bible-translation project.
The narrative finds Cromwell in the employ of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), chief ecclesial advocate for King Henry (Damian Lewis) but now out of favour. Wolsey has failed to deliver a solution to Henry’s demand for divorce so he can sire a male heir. Almost seamlessly Cromwell transfers his career to the service of Henry. His inscrutable face masks a long memory, however. When the time is right he will exact revenge on the men who did his former patron down.
Cromwell masterminds the ecclesiastical coup that cut England’s ties to the Pope, made Henry supreme governor of the Church of England, and placed Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) on the throne as the king’s consort. It is Anne who gives energy to the Henrician Reformation. Clearly Cromwell detests many Roman Catholic practices. To replenish Henry’s coffers he instigates takeover of the monasteries and redistribution of their lands among the king’s cronies. In the great traditions of British historical drama, costumes and sets are delivered in lavish detail.
Good drama, not least historical drama, can hold a discomfiting mirror to our times. Wolf Hall does that and more. Is life under the Islamic State or the Taliban all that different from early-Reformation England, where religious dissenters were racked, works of art vandalized, and monastic treasures looted?
In the final moments of Wolf Hall, King Henry VIII encircles his man with a royal bear hug. Cromwell has engineered the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn. Henry is free to pursue his neurotic obsession to sire a son with his new wife, Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips). The look on Cromwell’s face is worth unnumbered words; he seems to know already that his days of political power are numbered. But that is another story.
Image: Mark Rylance plays the mild-mannered Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall. • Masterpiece photo