WE love shows about British royalty and the monarch whose life has been told and retold in several film and TV versions is Henry VIII, who became notorious because of his six wives. In the movies, the most memorable for us are “Anne of the Thousand Days” (about his romance with Anne Boleyn, with Richard Burton a compelling Henry and Genevieve Bujold as the ill-fated Anne), “Man for All Seasons” (1966, which focused on Sir Thomas More, who was beheaded for not giving in to Henry’s wish for him to marry Anne), and “The Other Boleyn Girl” (2008, with Eric Bana as Henry, Natalie Portman as Anne and Scarlett Johansson as Mary, the title role who became Henry’s mistress ahead of Anne.)
One mini-series that’s well received is “The Tudors” that ran for several seasons (2007 to 2010), with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry. Then we have “Wolf Hall”, based on the fictional novels of Hilary Mantel told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power in Henry’s court. The title comes from the home of the Seymours called “Wolf Hall”, but also alludes to a Latin saying that compares man to a wolf, a dangerous animal like those who inhabit the English court.
It has six episodes and starts with the dismissal of Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor. It ends with the beheading of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). Cromwell was portrayed as a villain by Leo McKern in the Oscar best picture “Man for All Seasons” directed by Fred Zinnemann, but in “Wolf Hall” he is portrayed more sympathetically, showing his poor childhood, being ruthlessly beaten up by his blacksmith dad, and his own efforts to become a lawyer and a man of substance in Henry’s court where internal squabbling is the norm.
The show starts in 1529 when Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce of “The Two Popes”), who used to be the most powerful adviser of King Henry (Damien Lewis of “Homeland”), is dismissed as Lord Chancellor because he cannot get an annulment from Rome of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine (Joanne Whalley). Cromwell (Mark Rylance, who won the Oscar for “Bridge of Spies”) is a lawyer working for Wolsey but after Wolsey’s downfall, he’s able to quickly ingratiate himself with King Henry and his concubine, Anne Boleyn.
He and Anne become quickly become allies as he helps her in her ambition to marry the King and be crowned as queen. Their number one oppositionist is Sir Thomas More, who resisted all Henry’s effort to win him over so he’s eventually beheaded. Henry is hoping Anne would give him a male heir, but their first born turns out to be a girl. This is Elizabeth, under whose reign England would grew in the so called Elizabethan era.
Anne has another pregnancy that ends in miscarriage and still another one, a boy, but sadly still born. Her failure to give him an heir leads Henry to focus her attention on another girl, Jane Seymour, who earlier won Cromwell’s attention but he quickly gives way when he senses that Henry is enamoured with Jane.
Henry orders Cromwell to find a way to get rid of Jane, so he frames her up for infidelity and charged with her adultery with five men, even with her own brother. Cromwell also succeeds in overseeing England’s Reformation, with Henry becoming the head of the Anglican Church, declaring its independence from the Vatican and the Catholic Church.
“Wolf Hall” ends with Anne’s beheading and Henry still fully trusting Cromwell. But history shows that five years later, he also fell from power after engineering the marriage of Henry with another wife, Anne of Cleves, but Henry found her a disappointment and this turns out to be a disaster for Cromwell. He was arraigned for treason and heresy and decapitated on July 28, 1540, the same day that Henry married his 5th wife, Catherine Howard.
“Wolf Hall” is a quiet but authoritative look on all the schemings and manipulation in court to remain in power. Mark Rylance plays his role like an astute poker player, holding his cards close to his chest like a sphinx, with the viewer unsure of what he might be thinking or what he’d do next.
Claire Foy matches him as the imperious uppity and most infamous second wife in history. After all her bitchiness, you somehow feel pity for her in the final episode. Damien Lewis balances well his interpretation of Henry as an entitled, egocentric tyrant and as charismatic monarch, but he simply pales in comparison to Rylance’s understated but compelling portrayal of Cromwell.
As directed by Peter Kosminsky, “Wolf Hall” is a well-produced historical drama with impressive period production design, great locations and lavish attention to detail. The way we are shown Cromwell’s back story as a caring husband and father (his wife and two daughters die early because of what they call the sweating sickness) makes it an engaging drama that avoids the soap opera theatrics of “The Tudors”.