Warning: Spoiler Alert
Welcome to 16th Century England, the year 1529, to be exact the setting for the new PBS Masterpiece Theater production, the BBC adaption of “Wolf Hall.” The series based on the first book of a trilogy, by British Author Hilary Mantel, takes place during the reign of English Monarch King Henry VIII, a character seen often over the years by American audiences. However, Mantel tells her story through the eyes of Master Thomas Cromwell, born the son of a blacksmith, whom starts the series as a lawyer and the top aide to English Cardinal Wolsey.
Although American networks, have had great success with “Period-Dramas,” in this writer’s opinion, The BBC are the masters of the genre. Although the Alexander Dumas’ classic, The Three Musketeers, rivals Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in versions created for the screen, I defy you to find a better telling of the story, than the BBC Original Series “The Musketeers.” Coming off two brilliant seasons, the series returns as King Louis XIII prepares for war with Spain.
Although Wolf Hall has a less contemporary feel, than the story revolving around the French King’s soldiers, the series provides a gritty realistic version of England in the Middle Ages. It’s an era of great upheaval and one of great loss, as a plague referred to as the “Sweating-Sickness,” claims the lives of young and old alike. Something that Master Cromwell, will soon feel the sting of.
While The Musketeers use a bright color palette to depict France, Wolf Hall has a drearier look to it, reflecting the English weather and the mood of the country. Even in one of the final scenes taking place midday in the Royal Garden, the sky’s far more gray than the blue skies we see in Paris in the late 1600’s.
Although the tale of Henry VIII, trying to annul his marriage to his first wife Katherine Of Aragon’s quite familiar to American audiences, it’s the performances that make this version stand out like a beacon in the night. Starting with the series lead actor, veteran stage actor Mark Rylance, portraying Thomas Crowell. For years I’ve read the raves that Mr. Rylance, earned on the stages of Broadway and London, after spending an hour with him, I can see why he gets such praise. Mr. Rylance’s an understated actor, playing Cromwell with great humility, yet when the time’s right he displays how clever he actually is, which bodes well for his future.
The British Monarch’s turned on his wife of eighteen-years, for not producing a male heir to the throne. Taken with a young noblewoman Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress, Henry wants Cardinal Wolsey to secure the Pope’s promise to grant an annulment, so he’s free to marry Anne and make some male heirs. The Pope’s against the concept, but Henry expects Wolsey into changing the Pontiff’s mind.
Cromwell’s truly a self-made man in an era, when birth-right determined one’s future. His father a drunkard and abusive, made Thomas leave his home as quickly as he could as a young man. He emigrated to France, becoming a soldier and lawyer. After nearly two-decades he returned home, gaining the favor of Cardinal Wolsey, who became his patron. Cromwell also had a family, his beloved wife Liz and two adorable daughters, Ann and Grace. Liz and Thomas also have an older son, Gregory, but Crowell seems to have no use for the boy, relying instead on his nephew Richard and his ward Rafe.
Thomas reads the writing on the wall, realizing Wolsey won’t secure an annulment causing him to lose favor from the King and giving the Cardinal’s enemies including Sir Thomas Moore, a chance to strike. Wolsey’s heading to France, to speak with influential church leaders, but Cromwell declines to take the trip.
Thomas heads home finding Liz making him a new shirt, while his youngest daughter Grace’s wearing her Angel Wings, meant only to be worn on Christmas Day. Liz tells her husband that his sister stopped by that afternoon, imploring him to see his father, saying the man’s given up drink and truly mellowed. Liz says his father’s never met the children, Cromwell says let’s keep it that way.
The next morning, Thomas leaves his bed to head to the palace, Liz says please let me know before you go, Cromwell reminds her he’s not going to France. The buzz around the castle’s that Moore’s brought back 100 bibles in English, so the people could know what the Bible actually says, instead of taking Wolsey’s interpretation.
Cromwell returns home to find two women standing there on the verge of tears, he spits out just tell me. Thomas heads into the bedroom, to find Liz’s passed due to the “Sweating-Sickness.” She said she felt tired after her husband left, fell asleep and quickly spiraled downward, the Priest couldn’t leave quickly enough. Suddenly Richard and Rafe walk in and say it’s the girls. Although the women try to revive them both, they both pass as well, suddenly Cromwell’s beautiful family swiped cruelly away from him.
That evening Richard and Rafe visit Thomas, Richard says that with his father gone, Cromwell’s really his father and asks if he should take Cromwell’s name. He says he lights a candle for his father each night, but it fails to give him comfort. Thomas responds, then it would do me comfort for you to become Richard Cromwell. The boys smile, Richard thanks his uncle and they leave.
Wolsey heads back from France with unsatisfying news, the French church officials didn’t give him support, however they got a Papal representative that’s coming to the English Royal Palace and they’ll get a hearing. Cromwell realizes there’s little chance of getting a favorable ruling and tells Wolsey he lost his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness while the Cardinal traveled. Wolsey offers his sincere condolences.
The hearing’s far from a good thing for the English Monarch, as Katherine Of Aragon speaks, saying she was pure when she married Henry and it wasn’t her fault that God saw fit to take her babies, in their infancy. An old lecherous servant testifies that the morning after Henry’s wedding night, he came out to the hallway, asking for something to quench his thirst. He said he’d been in Spain all night, then the old man cackled, pointing out that Catherine’s Spanish.
The decision for an annulment a lost cause, Cromwell’s priority’s saving Wolsey’s life, as many of the King’s adviser’s making a strong case for executing the now useless Church Official. Cromwell hopes to gain favor from Ann Boleyn as he delivers her the inventory of her new property, the Hampton Court. Boleyn’s sharp-tongued and very intelligent, seemingly enjoying the debate she has with Cromwell. When he’s dismissed, her sister Mary runs after him telling him to return soon as she enjoyed the show.
Cromwell tells Richard and Rafe that he needs to secure a seat in Parliament again, in order to save Wolsey’s life. Later that evening, he’s visited by the Duke of Norfolk, a man who dislikes Wolsey and seems to hear everything that takes place around the Palace as soon as it occurs. He asks why Cromwell has to act like such a “person,” to which Thomas smiles. He tells Cromwell he’s a nobody and that Henry well remembers the last time he held a seat in Parliament, as Thomas spoke out against the King. Nevertheless, the King will meet with Cromwell the next day in the Royal Garden.
We finally get our first chance to visit with Henry, portrayed by Damian Lewis, well-known for his part of Nick Brody in the first three-seasons of the Showtime Original Series, Homeland. The screen literally crackles for the barely three-minutes the two have together, showing us what we have to look forward to in the rest of the production.
The King talks of Cromwell’s first time in Parliament, opposing Henry’s desire to declare war on France, saying that if Henry got captured by the French, the ransom for his return would bankrupt the nation. He asks Cromwell if he’s huddle indoors like a sick little girl, Thomas responds, that would be ideal fiscally. Henry laughs, taken by Cromwell’s candor and wit. Cromwell says a strong man acts, within that, that constrains him, telling Henry distance is the King’s restraint. Henry needs to take control of a French seaport, to have any serious chance of beating his enemy.
Henry’s intrigued, he says you’ve got a bad reputation Cromwell, Thomas remains silent. The King asks will he not defend himself? Thomas says Your Majesty can decide for yourself, Henry smiles and as he walks away he says Oh I will.
Cromwell gets back to the Cardinal’s quarters, a boy asks if he’s to paint over Wolsey’s coat-of-arms, Cromwell says to paint it brighter.
The Story Continues Next Sunday Night at 10:00 pm on PBS Masterpiece Theater.