Historical dramas depicting the Tudor period are hardly novel, much less so those depicting the reign of King Henry VIII. Over the last few decades this particular period may well have been the most thoroughly adapted of our entire history. Anyone with a basic knowledge of Henry VIII knows the drill with this storyline: the king, infamous for his womanising and his egotism, divorces his wife of 24 years to marry the much younger Anne Boleyn, changing the course of history forever, before changing his mind and having her swiftly beheaded. So what makes Wolf Hall different?
Firstly, Wolf Hall is not really about Henry VIII. Unlike Showtime’s The Tudors, this show will not deal in the more salacious details of Henry’s personal life. The protagonist of this particular adaptation is Thomas Cromwell, a Putney-born blacksmith’s son who rose to become the king’s right hand man. An unusual choice, it would seem, but a smart one: the decision to refocus events on the man responsible for the country’s administration allows for an enlightened view of the factionalism, intrigue and power politics at play in Henry’s court in a way that has never really been done on screen.
Secondly, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are Man Booker Prize winners, and with Mantel’s narrative also comes her wealth of research. Generally, I think it’s unfair to compare too closely books and their motion picture counterparts – especially when the books in question amount to over one thousand pages of text – but in this case an exception may have to be made. This is not the first time that historical fiction has made it to the screen, but it is so evident in Mantel’s work that years of painstaking research have been undertaken to build the detailed and authentic story that the stakes are surely heightened. The sense that this will be the series to ‘do the Tudors’ in the right way has built great expectations.
The long-awaited premiere finally screened this week, joining the line-up of BBC primetime television. What we were led through in this opening 65 minutes was a sequence of introductory scenes laying out for us the key issues of the 1530s, crucial to anyone uninitiated with the particulars of this moment in history. At times the exposition felt clunky: it is unlikely, for instance, that anyone in Henry’s court (or, indeed, in England) would need to be told that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, is Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. What this does make for however is a well-rounded episode that encapsulates pretty much all of the major issues that we’re about to see played out for the next episodes: Cromwell’s lowly birth and his conflicts with his noble colleagues; the growing conflicts between the established orthodox religion and what is considered to be ‘heresy’; Henry VIII’s growing concern about siring an heir.
We join the action at a point which feels like halfway through. Henry has already met Anne Boleyn, and is already actively pursuing his divorce from Catherine. But as the focus of the story is Cromwell, the events of this episode hinge around a crucial point in his career: the fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1529. Flashbacks occur to flesh out events in the years leading up to this. For the most part these are quite seamlessly done, and only when absolutely necessary – it was a good choice to leave most of Cromwell’s childhood to exposition in the dialogue rather than showing us it. What I did really enjoy about this first hour – and what I enjoyed about the book also – was the build-up to the two big meetings of the episode: Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Both were understated yet enrapturing – Claire Foy as Anne manages a blend of amusing and threatening simultaneously. Although we didn’t see him until the last five minutes, Damien Lewis is already impressing as Henry VIII. In my mind this was great casting – not only does he look the part (no offence meant to Jonathan Rhys Meyer), but he carries the right charisma. This Henry VIII is certainly no caricature. I’m almost hoping that in episodes to come we’re not over-spoilt with scenes with Henry, because it’s the unknowable and elusive element to Henry’s character that works so well in balance with all the other scenes, which are about him but without him present.
Overall, this was a strong and well-paced opening episode which successfully (if a little clunkily) got around the issue of its complex subject. Over the course of the next 5 weeks this is a series that has a good chance of appealing to both Tudor historians and drama-lovers alike.
Scene of the week:
It has to be the scene in the last five minutes between Henry and Cromwell:
“…I captured the town of Thérouanne, which you called – ”
“ – a ‘dog-hole’, majesty”
“How could you say so?”
“Uh… I’ve been there.”
It’s exchanges like this that show how successful Mantel is in making us like Cromwell.