Wolf Hall, the television miniseries, is based on two books by Hilary Mantel, the first of which, Wolf Hall, won the 2009 Man Booker prize, the second being Bring Up the Bodies. Together these books tell the story of King Henry VIII’s desire for a male heir, how he puts aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marries Anne Boleyn. It is not so much a history as “an offering” according to Mantel, since there is not that much recorded history to go on. Of Anne Boleyn, she says, “The evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory; the sources are often dubious, tainted and after-the-fact”. But Wolf Hall is really telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, the architect of Henry’s divorce, the destruction of the hold of the Roman church in England, and the instrument of Anne Boleyn’s demise. Mantel describes him as “a political genius, a briber, a bully and a charmer” who broke “all the rules of a rigid society in his ascent to power, and was [prepared] to break some more”.
Directed by Peter Kosminsky, this is a lavish production using castles and cathedrals not filmed before, giving the story a fresh look. Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII much as one might expect — as a dichotomy of lust and devotion, a man who increasingly must have his own way and leaves the how to others who fear that failure equates the Tower, followed by death. They are not wrong. We see how Henry’s insistence that he obtain a divorce, and Anne’s (Claire Foy) constant badgering of Henry to get rid of Cardinal Wolsey, open the way for Cromwell to eventually hold the highest place in Henry’s service a position which allows him to take revenge on his enemies.
Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is portrayed here quite differently than he’s been portrayed in the past. Despite the description quoted above and a reputation as being conniving and ruthless, Cromwell is shown here as a sensitive man who loses his wife and dear little daughters to the dreaded ‘sweat’ and almost never recovers from the loss. We see his devotion to Wolsey and his care of his son, his servants and his assistants. We see the scars of a brutally abusive childhood and the man with the determination to overcome it. He is depicted as a man who has risen from the bottom of society — the son of a blacksmith and constantly reminded of it — solely by his ability, his facility for languages, his understanding of the law, a natural grasp of how economics rule a country, and a patient, quiet manner which keeps him from falling out with the king and allows him to oppose members of the nobility through subtle means.
An underlying current throughout, is that Cromwell did everything within his power to help Wolsey gain back favour with the Henry after his failure to secure the divorce from Catherine he so desperately wanted. After his death, Cromwell is haunted by Wolsey and works discreetly and at all times to bring those courtiers who mocked Wolsey after his death to a retribution. Despite Mantel referring to him as a bully, he is continually working calmly to achieve the king’s aims and stands firm in the face of jealous opposition, yet wherever he can, he ensures that those who were against Wolsey will eventually receive their just desserts. In this, he is totally successful.
Wolf Hall is told in 6 one-hour episodes and the title is taken from the name of the manor house of the Seymour family, home to Jane Seymour who would become the third of Henry’s six wives. Since the Seymours themselves have little to do with Henry’s story until after Anne Boleyn, the name is thought to be suggestive of a latin phrase, homo homini lupus, or “Man is wolf to man,” (BBC America) indicating what in modern terms we might call, the “dog eat dog world” of Henry’s court. While Cromwell survives treachery and rivalry in this portion of Henry’s reign, he does, eventually, follow the path of his enemies and predecessors to the charge of treason and clanging door of the Tower. This DVD set includes many feature articles about the making of the movie, the sets, costumes, and interviews with the actors and actresses, as well as the director, Kosminsky, which are extremely interesting, especially the interviews. Nominated for a total of thirteen Primetime Emmy and Critics Choice Television awards (2015) and winner of the 2016 Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries, this movie provides an interesting and unusual perspective of a turbulent time in English history and its central players. Very enjoyable. * * * * *