New York Times, April 5, 2015
Episode 1: Three Card Trick
"Wolf Hall," the novel, begins in blood: the young Thomas Cromwell being beaten within an inch of his life by his own father. "Wolf Hall," the BBC miniseries that began on Sunday night on PBS, begins in shadow: Cromwell the consigliere (Mark Rylance) scuttling out of darkness, blowing out a lantern and whispering into his master's ear.
It's hard to remember an epic protagonist who makes a more diffident entrance or whose face so resists illumination. Twice, over the course of this first episode, Cromwell is referred to as "nobody." But the implicit thesis of Hilary Mantel's novel is that the creatures of shadow do as much to advance history—and shed blood—as the creatures of light. If not more. So even though we look back on the English Reformation and see a pageant of playing-card figures—Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More—Ms. Mantel has another gambit in mind. She wants to strain all that Tudor madness through the guarded, gray, ironical gaze of a bureaucrat.
Cromwell is the guy who gets things done, often without your knowing it. He's quiet, sheathed, nocturnal. A watcher, gathering all available data for purposes not yet determined. And yet, over the course of this handsome, dark-grained, faithful adaptation, events tear a hole in his mask of anonymity, and we see that not only does he suffer but, better than anyone he serves or opposes, he also grasps the consequences of his own actions, good or bad. And in the tortured moral landscape of "Wolf Hall," that may be enough to make him a hero.
According to the Vitruvius quote that forms the epigraph of Ms. Mantel's novel, "There are three kinds of scenes, one called the tragic, second the comic, third the satyric." It's hard to glimpse much in the way of Satyricon so far—even King Henry can't do much more than kiss his beloved's breasts—but sex is the only reason you could want the very woman you can't have and then move heaven and earth to have her. The English Reformation may end in spirit, but it begins with a king's glands.
Which brings us to the comic side of the equation. Humor, against all odds, is percolating under this bleak world from that opening scroll of exposition: "And Henry is not a forgiving man. ..." Cromwell, being our guide and surrogate, tends to score most of the laughs. (I particularly liked the bit when, having driving his bête noire Thomas More (Anton Lesser) from a dining room, he croons to the host, "You must give me the recipe for this sauce.") There's a comic arc, too, to his first encounter with King Henry (Damian Lewis). "Do you want a king to huddle indoors like a sick girl?" Henry snaps. "That would be ideal," Cromwell answers, "for fiscal purposes."
"Master Cromwell," the king declares, "your reputation is bad."
"Your Majesty can form your own opinions."
"I can. I will."
The mutual seduction has begun.
Oh, but it's a treacherous business, loving a prince. Just ask Henry's wife, Queen Katherine (Joanne Whalley), soon to be cast off for her underperforming womb. Ask Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), who loses house, wealth and position because he can't bend the pope to his sovereign's will.
Why would someone as canny as Thomas Cromwell check into that heartbreak hotel? Because, when it comes down to it, he wants to be more than an observer—more than the "butcher's dog" to Wolsey's "butcher's boy." As he explains to his wife, "I don't want to spend my life dealing in conveyances."
Cromwell's ambition, though, isn't the usual bourgeois striving but a kind of displaced revenge against his own powerlessness. In that sense, the beating he took from his father has never healed. He may forbear to take a hammer to Dad's skull, but he won't necessarily be forbearing with his political enemies—any more than he was on the battlefields of his mercenary youth.
Indeed, the one area where Mr. Rylance's performance falls short for me is in conveying the character's menace, for Cromwell carries with him both the history and the imprint of violence. People get nervous around him, except for Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield), who gets turned on. A boy in Wolsey's household says he looks like a murderer. His past, much as he tries to slough it off, looks increasingly like a prelude.
Which leads us, finally, to tragedy—the element sewn right into this God-abandoned world where fathers turn on sons ... where reading a Bible in your native tongue gets you burned at the stake ... where a man leaves a healthy family at home and comes back that night to find them all dead from sweating sickness.
In the midst of life, the characters of "Wolf Hall" are in death—and sometimes in some weird suspension between the two. Well before her demise, Cromwell's daughter is fitted out for the afterlife in a pair of homemade angel wings, and in the episode's most chilling moment, Cromwell's wife appears to follow him out into the hallway only to vanish when he glances back.
But where tragedy really lives is in Mr. Rylance's haunted eyes. They glimpse the skull beneath every skin—his own included—and still they watch and still they wait. Just like us.
Fraught symbols: 1) Cromwell tells Wolsey he once held a snake in Italy "for a bet." (When asked if it was poisonous: "I didn't know. That was the point of the bet.") That nicely sets up Cromwell as the self-designated handler for the Vatican vipers. 2) The three card trick that gives the episode its title is a shell game designed to separate fools from their money, but it's also a useful metaphor for the political con game and a veiled swipe at the Holy Trinity.
Machiavelli would be proud: 1) Wolsey: "In every emergency, look to see if there is some advantage for your prince." 2) Cromwell: "A strong man acts within that which constrains him."
Credulity check: At a time when simply having the Tyndale Bible in your possession was a capital crime, isn't it hard to believe that Cromwell would have the book sent straight to his house? And then talk about it so freely in front of his wife? Those would have been burning offenses for everyone concerned. (In the novel, Cromwell at least keeps the Bible in a locked chest.)
Speak now, friends. For those of you who've read the book, is this the evocation you were hoping for? For those of you who haven't, are you able to follow all the cross weave of intrigue? Which characters do you want to see more of? And what element of Tudor England makes you happiest to live in the present day?
Till next week. ...