England during the 1520s is on the precipice of turmoil. If the King dies without a male heir, England will be at war with itself, fighting over who gets the throne. Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) wants out from his twenty-odd years of marriage to Katherine Of Aragon (Joanne Whalley), for a younger and more fertile wife, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). The Pope and the majority of the European continent are firmly against this divorce, stopping Henry in his tracks in whatever scheme he undertakes to divorce Katherine.
Helping him with this venture, is Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance). He’s a man of humble birth, the son of a blacksmith with working class origins. He’s a charming man but he can also be bullyish. He’s nice when and charming when it’s useful. He’s an idealist and opportunist, impeccable at reading people and often referenced as a “serpent.” Henry can be violent. One minute he’s caring and loving, but in the next he wants your head on a spike on the city walls. Cromwell helps his king break his enemies. Wolf Hall is the story of England’s shadiest statesman and history’s most philandering king, incorporated with politics, power, greed and gluttony.
I have now watched Wolf Hall three times and it gets better with each watch. The adaptation of Hilary Mantel novels gets better with each viewing, thanks to its quietly alluring performances and great direction as well as an excellent script, full of: intrigue, wit and class. The BBC have a knack for making sensational period dramas from the halls of Pride & Prejudice to the Cornish coast with Poldark to the battlefields of The Hollow Crown and War & Peace. The BBC are on role with quality storytelling and the train has only just left the station. Wolf Hall is one of their best dramas, for sure.
The narrative begins with the political ruin of Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) and subsequently his death. Henry VIII, after twenty-odd years of marriage to Katherine Of Aragon is without a son. The Duke Of Norfolk (Bernard Hill) comes raging into the Cardinal’s residence in the dead of night to arrest his imminence. He’s fallen out of favour with Henry for being unable to divorce him from his Spanish queen. Wolsey survives the night raid. He’s not dragged from his home because of the quick wits of his lawyer Thomas Cromwell (Rylance), who is very intelligent and resourceful thus thinking on his feet as well as having a network of spies which include Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) and Lady Rochford (Jessica Raine).
Wolsey’s demise is the first of many, and it’s the beginning of an interesting take of one part of England’s medieval history. Dialogue is used sparingly. But when it is used, it delivers. Every line is either insightful, humourous or witty. Many lines may not make sense straightaway but they will do later on. Things that happen in one episode may not make sense until one episode later or even two episodes later. Pay attention to fine print. Watching Wolf Hall is a slower burn than your standard slow burn period drama, as many things happen quietly under the radar, or over the embers of candlelight. I think readers of the novels will be pleased with the drama, as it is adapted from both Wolf Hall and second novel, Bring Up The Bodies. It’s still fair to the source material and an awesome show in its own right. Wolf Hall is a bingeworthy drama that sits at six episodes, which can be done in one sitting. Many complain of its slowness. But aren’t many period dramas of this caliber slow?
I tend to get irritated that people call a history drama without any battles slow. It’s a slow burn because it’s a politically based medieval drama. If a history drama isn’t like White Queen, The Tudors or The Hollow Crown, it’s considered slow. But I have an appreciation for great stories and I don’t need a battle every episode to keep interested. Wolf Hall is truly magical and showy with its period set pieces and showy costume design. I loved the rapport between Mark Rylance (Bridge Of Spies) and Claire Foy (Lady In The Van) as Thomas Cromwell and Queen Anne. Her pomposity is laid out bare, in all it’s glory from lines such as “Those who have been made, can be also be unmade” she snarls, to which he replies “I entirely agree” with his blank face, because he made her Queen. And he can unmake her, as we see when her head rolls in the finale.
I first saw Mark Rylance as Cromwell immediately after seeing James Frain in the same role in Showtime’s Tudors. They are playing the same role, and bring very different attitudes to the shady lawyer. Frain looks naturally scaly and slimy in the role whilst Cromwell can be in a room whilst being almost completely unnoticed. Both are very different, with their own degree excellence. And they both started on the stage. Mark Rylance is very still as this silent watcher, often clad in black becoming one with the darkness. Also, Frain’s portrayal is outright villainous whilst Rylance’s shows the good and the bad.
Mark Rylance depicts the figure of the underdog in a world of lords and gentlemen. He’s a working class man sitting at the table with the fat cats. Cromwell has a good heart to those who deserve it, malleable but then he’s pure iron to enemies of the crown, like when he says to someone who spurns him about his class, “you made a mistake threatening me.” with such coldness. Rylance is by no means a young actor but he’s at the height of his career and he’s only going to get better.
The show goes from strength to strength. Everyone calls out Rylance’s masterclass performance with his perfect expressions of blankness. You never know what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling in the very public scenes unless he wants you to, because his face is almost never revealing anything. There is not a single actor in the show who goes wrong. Everyone was casted perfectly. This even includes the likes of Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game Of Thrones) as Rafe Sadler and Tom Holland (Captain America: Civil War) as Gregory Cromwell, in addition to Jonathan Pryce (Pirates Of The Caribbean) as Wolsey, Bernard Hill (Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers) as Norfolk and Anton Lesser (The Hollow Crown) as the renowned lawyer and philosopher, Thomas More. Even Damian Lewis (Homeland) as Henry shocked me. I didn’t think he’d be as good as he was.
It wasn’t Rylance who stole the show at all. It was Claire Foy who is truly remarkable in her season-stealing performance as the bitchy yet captivating Ann. She is calculating, shrewish yet can be amiable. She’s as unpredictable as Henry and refers to Cromwell in her native French (raised in France) as “Cremuel.” She has this narcissistic God complex. She believes she is better than everyone else, and she gets her comeuppance in the end. There’s a great scene between her and Cromwell standing by the window, lording over the fall of More (Lesser) and then the epic court case where she is tried and sentenced to death. But this wouldn’t be Anne Boleyn without the famous speech before her execution in front of “the people.” Claire Foy knocks it for six and I liked her take on Ann more so than Natalie Dormer’s in The Tudors, and that’s saying something, because hers was excellent.
Throughout the whole season, you will be dumbstruck by the sheer amount of talent from the whole cast, regardless of age as well as the set pieces, costume, dialogue and a musical score that is a challenger to the likes Game Of Thrones (Ramin Djawadi) Lord Of The Rings (Howard Shore) and even Star Wars (John Williams). Unlike The Tudors, Wolf Hall is more substance than style. It’s one of the best BBC dramas to date and I truly hope a second season comes to pass showing us the remaining story of Henry VIII and history’s shadiest statesman.
Power is a relative concept and Cromwell exploited its illusion, more so than most