Wolf Hall is the BBC’s new adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, chronicling the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s merchant-born advisor, Thomas Cromwell.
I’ll admit, at first, I didn’t want to watch this show. I am not a fan of Cromwell (to the extent that you can be “not a fan” of a real historical figure) and I was incredibly reluctant to watch something that seemed likely to paint him as a wonderful, sympathetic hero while villainising those he destroyed, like Anne Boleyn. And the show does make him into a compelling and sympathetic character, as it must to be even vaguely successful. But that doesn’t mean moral complexity is overlooked, and, after an initial adjustment period, I discovered that the show is actually incredibly fulfilling to watch.
Wolf Hall is a very male-centered show, especially in its first episode. In part, of course, this is because the story is focussed on Thomas Cromwell, and his political dealings are mostly with other men. But the show does also miss opportunities to explore its female characters and their motivations more deeply. Every one of them (minus a brief appearance from Catherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor) is considered in a somewhat sexual manner, even if they’re not sexualized as they are in shows like The Tudors, and clashes between Cromwell and Anne take a backseat compared to other tumultuous relationship, like the one between Cromwell and Thomas More.
But the show is incredibly historically accurate. The actors look remarkably like the historical figures’ portraits, and I noticed at least two instances where the show used real speeches, slightly updated for modern ears. Even common small inaccuracies, like Catherine of Aragon and Mary having dark hair instead of their actual red hair, are corrected. The show seems determined to be as faithful to known historical events as physically possible, and that’s admirable, and incredibly enjoyable to watch, at least from this Tudor history nerd’s perspective.
And although important female characters often take a back seat, their political influence isn’t downplayed. We see Catherine give a stirring speech in her own defence, and are told that she fought Scotland, giving an impression of a fierce, strong, capable queen that is often overlooked in retellings of “Catherine vs Anne Boleyn.” Similarly, Anne is incredibly ambitious here, but it is not just personal ambition to marry Henry. We learn that Anne has read heretical Protestant literature and has many of her own opinions about it, and although she and Cromwell are constantly at odds, we also see how their similar political leanings unite them and their goals. We even see a lot of Elizabeth Barton and her visions, and the huge influence she has, and this often overlooked but important figure is characterized with great strength of character and intelligence.
Unfortunately, these female characters are rarer in the show than they should be. Catherine and Mary barely appear, and Catherine and Anne do not, as far as I can recall, ever speak to one another, or even appear in a scene together. Anne is certainly ambitious and political, but her portrayal as the show goes on makes her start to seem irrational, without much exploration of how desperate her situation becomes and how that affects her. Perhaps most disappointingly, the show marks Anne’s sister-in-law, Jane Boleyn, as a vindictive traitor — a common narrative about these events, but one that isn’t really supported by evidence and would be so easy to subvert. If the show can bring a lot of depth and sympathy to a man like Thomas Cromwell, it can spare a few moments to explore what might compel Jane Boleyn to give evidence against her husband and his sister, beyond “well she was just a horrible person.” But the show takes the easy way out, which is disappointing considering the depth it brings to other difficult historical figures.
In another strike against it, the show is not always easy to follow. I’m pretty obsessed with this time period, but sometimes I found myself wondering who that person was supposed to be again, or confused about where the narrative had jumped to. I imagine it’s not the friendliest exploration of this time period to anyone who hasn’t seen it all before. But it is sumptuous to watch.
Wolf Hall is gorgeously shot, with some brilliant acting and great lines, and it is the first show I’ve seen that manages to bring history to life, in the sense that it’s both incredibly accurate (at least, as accurate as anything can come based on a few documents 600 years later) and yet still compelling. It doesn’t reinterpret a few threads of history in order to make a dramatic TV show. It uses the medium of television give one possible version of that history.
And that, I think, is really worth watching. Just be warned that the female characters don’t always get the screen time and focus they might deserve.