While you might think you've seen just about as much as you could want of Henry VIII and his court on television or the movies in the last few years with The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl, don't let that put you off watching Wolf Hall. Starting April 5 2015 at 10pm EST and running for six consecutive Sundays on PBS Masterpiece (check local listings for times and stations in your region) this mini series brings both the era and the people to life in a way you've never seen on the screen before.
Seen from the point of view of the man usually painted as the villain of the era, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) the series focuses on Henry's (Damian Lewis) efforts to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She had failed to produce a male heir after twenty years and he wanted to replace her with Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). We also see how this led to England's split with the Pope and the beginning of his dissatisfaction with Boleyn.
Over the course of the series we watch Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, rise from being aid to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) Henry's Lord Chancellor to becoming one of Henry's chief advisors himself. Along the way he survives Wolsey's fall from grace, (he failed to convince the Pope to annul the king's first marriage so he could wed Boleyn) the death of his wife and daughters and the enmity of Thomas Moore (Anton Lesser.) However, it's the Cardinal's downfall which brings him into contact with Henry and Boleyn and his rise in station and influence. For in trying to assist Wolsey in regaining the king's favour, he impresses them with his loyalty to his master, his intelligence and his abilities to get things done.
Based on the Booker Prize Winning books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the series is a beautifully rendered, and historically accurate recounting of one of the most turbulent times in English social/political history. While other productions have been more concerned with the soap opera aspects of the era, here the focus is squarely on the political machinations of the court and the players jockeying for the king's favour.
However, don't be dismayed or put off by what might sound like a dry political drama. The creators have done a masterful job of writing and producing a show which will keep you riveted and glued to your seat. They don't spoon feed you anything, and you have to pay attention, but, in spite of the plot twists and turns and various characters to keep straight, if you let yourself fall into the rhythm of the show you'll find yourself swept up in the story.
Some people might take umbrage with the depiction of Thomas Moore in this production. He's always perviously been shown as "the good guy" who was persecuted by the King and Cromwell. Here he's seen as someone who has no problems torturing individuals he suspects of heresy or ordering them to be burned at the stake for the same crimes. In fact there's very little that's saintly about this particular version of the future St.Thomas Moore.
Of course this type of program is only ever as good as the actors playing the roles. Here, even minor roles are played by actors of quality. Of course where it really counts, the leads, the acting is superlative. You might not have heard of Rylance, he's primarily a stage actor in Great Britain, but his performance as Cromwell is one of the most complex and nuanced pieces of work I've seen in years. Look at his eyes during his conversations with other characters. Watch him watching, you can almost see the wheels turn as he figures out how to best manipulate everybody from the King to the lowliest servant.
As Henry VIII, Lewis is equally remarkable. In fact he probably has the harder role as he has to overcome all of our preconceived notions of the king. Henry was neither stupid nor the callous philanderer he's often been depicted as. Like all royalty of the time he is firm in the belief of his right to rule, but he's also quick to recognize when someone can be of use to him. Lewis does a fine job of showing us both the arrogance and the humanity of the character. We see the petulant child who has tantrums when he doesn't get what he wants, but we also see the wit and intelligence of a man who could inspire genuine devotion among his followers.
As the axis around which all action revolves in the series, Foy's Boleyn is more than a match for her male counterparts. Not only does her performance capture the ruthlessnesses the character would need to obtain her goal of becoming queen and that she is every bit as politically adroit as the men around her, we also are allowed to see the human being behind the mask of royalty. Using her family connections, niece to one of the most powerful men at Henry's court the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), and her physical charms she creates her own power base which gives her the power to help bring about the fall of both Wolsey and Moore. Unfortunately it's the latter which helps to create the circumstances required to bring about her own downfall.
It's not often one has the opportunity to see a historical drama not only accurate down to the minutest detail, including table etiquette and manners, but brilliantly written and featuring performances by some of the best actors of this generation. Wolf Hall, airing on PBS's Masterpiece for six weeks starting Sunday April 5 2015 (check local listings for exact times) is not only all of the above, its also intelligent and entertaining. History has never looked or sounded this good on television.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as TV Preview: PBS's Masterpiece 'Wolf Hall' - Henry VIII as You've Never Seen Him)
(Originally posted April 2015)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.