Weekend Film Recommendation: Wolf Hall

Happy New Year, RBC!

The 2016 film recommendation season kicks off with the BBC’s wonderful televised adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, in a six part series named after the first of the books.

The story deals with some rather well-rehearsed material for English audiences. (The old saying is that the British school curriculum for years languished in an excessive emphasis on the Tudors and World War II). It spans the years from the mid-1520s to the mid-1540s. Henry VIII, who had successfully petitioned the Pope for a special dispensation to marry Katherine of Aragon (who had formerly been betrothed to Henry’s late brother before his own accession to the throne) then petitioned the Pope again, this time unsuccessfully, for yet another dispensation – this time to divorce Katherine and instead marry Anne Boleyn. The political tussle that ensued included Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries, his installation as the head of the Church of England, and some jolly japes along the way over whether Catholicism or Protestantism ought to win out in the long run.

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It’s a great yarn, not least because the dramatis personae are interesting enough to make any rendition idiot-proof for script-writers looking to engage even the least motivated audience. But the peculiar appeal of Mantel’s spin is to shift the audience’s sympathetic eye from Thomas More—the Catholic genocidiaire so warmly portrayed in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons—to Thomas Cromwell—the Protestant genocidiaire whose story usually isn’t told in as flattering a light. Through Cromwell’s eyes, we witness Henry VIII’s fiery tantrums, his eventual disenchantment with Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn’s cunning and manipulative rise to power.

In the BBC adaptation, Mark Rylance’s performance as Cromwell is quiet, reflective, shrewd, and statesmanlike. He is Machiavellian in the strict sense: in both every dispute and in every harmony, he is presented with an opportunity for advancement. He exploits those opportunities masterfully. We also acquire insight into his motivations, most notably why his relentless pursuit of advancement takes the form it does. Bullied by a merciless father throughout his youth, ashamed of his lowly birth, and coached by a supremely competent mentor of similar upbringing (Wolsey), Cromwell combines statesmanly competence with an extensive catalogue of enemies against whom to direct his patient rage.

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The supporting cast is also superb. Although Claire Foy as Lady (and then Queen) Anne rarely shares a scene with King Henry, played by Damian Lewis, it’s abundantly apparent what draws one to the other. They’re both incorrigibly egotistical and unpredictably impetuous. At times, these traits make them both susceptible to Cromwell’s manipulations, yet for the same reasons at other times they’re plainly impossible to manage.

As Thomas More, Anton Lesser is a filthy curmudgeon. Cromwell has no better adversary: as a child, More’s prodigious talents rapidly elevated him far above his station, and it was the youthful Cromwell who fleetingly served on More. Jonathan Pryce plays an ailing Wolsey who labors in the final years of his career while falling ever farther outside the gleaming radiance of the King’s favor. Pryce wears the facial expression of a man who knows his time is almost up. When we meet him, he’s clearly past his prime, but it’s apparent that Wolsey’s prime was a thing to behold—he still shows glimpses of true cunning in his more private moments, when confiding in Cromwell.

It’s a slow six episodes, to be sure, but it’s immensely rewarding if you stick with it. Enjoy!

4 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Wolf Hall”

  1. Yes, A Man for All Seasons (closely based on Roper's wonderful memoir) was much more than fair to More and less than fair to Cromwell. So defenders of Wolf Hall can reasonably say "Turnabout is fair play." But the two are equally partisan and equally selective in their use of the facts, at least if the TV series, which I have yet to see, follows Mantel's book.

    Perhaps it would be too much to ask, but I'd love to see this period treated as tragedy rather than melodrama.

    What really puzzles me, though, is the use of the word "genocide" in connection with either More or Cromwell. The striking thing about the Catholic/Protestant struggle in England is how little blood was shed, by comparison to the truly genocidal struggles in the Low Countries, France, Bohemia, and parts of Germany.

    1. That's because most of the blood was Irish. Credible estimates are that one quarter or more of the Irish died in Elizabeth's wars, and the same again in Cromwell's wars ("they can go to hell or Connaught"). That's more than most estimates for Germany in the Thirty Years War. But maybe 10 per cent of England's population died in the Civil Wars, which had a major religious dimension.

      1. The bloodshed under Elizabeth, and again under Oliver Cromwell, happened long after Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, the protagonists in A Man For All Seasons and Wolf Hall, were long since dead and buried. My question is why it's appropriate to call either T. More or T. Cromwell a "genocidaire."

  2. "Long after"? Cromwell died 1540, when Elizabeth was 7. The first round of the wars of religion was the Schmalkaldic War 1546-47, just 7 years later. Serious bloodshed in France started 1562 and the revolt of the Netherlands starts 1568 – both dates at which Cromwell was well within living memory. Ireland is only a little later – Desmond's revolt starts 1582. The issues around which Cromwell, More and many others died reverberated for well over a century. I agree "genocidaire" is a misleading label (for one thing, were religious partisans a people?), but I don't doubt that both would have thought freedom of religion an abomination, to be stamped out with whatever force was necessary.

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