Where ‘The Tudors’ and ‘The Borgias’ Use Sex and Violence, ‘Wolf Hall’ Uses Language

Wolf Hall may lack the naturalism and graphic sex and violence of other period dramas, but it's all the better for it.

If you haven’t got the time or the inclination to navigate the 1,100 or so pages of the first two novels in Hilary Mantel’s planned Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, you now have an alternative way to visit the world of these two Man Booker Prize-winning novels. The television production of Wolf Hall, a joint product of the BBC and PBS, condenses the key elements of Mantel’s novels into six hours of high-quality television, now available on DVD and through streaming services.

The creators of Wolf Hall have taken a different tack from that used in two other recent historical fiction television series, The Borgias and The Tudors. While those series missed no chance to highlight the sexual and violent aspects of their stories, Wolf Hall is much more concerned about strategy and power. Instead of bare butts and poisonings, you mostly get a lot of people talking, frequently in chunks of exposition, and speeches that do not attempt to reproduce the way anyone actually speaks.

In some people’s view, that’s already three strikes against Wolf Hall: not enough graphic sex, not enough graphic violence, and no attempt at naturalism. However, this is what makes the series all the more interesting. In fact, it frequently feels more like a play than either a television show or a movie, albeit one with a rather large stage and really good production values. In a play, heightened reality rather than naturalistic imitation of everyday life is part of the bargain. The departure from naturalism also make the story more timeless; it’s easy to recognize aspects of contemporary politics and politicians in the portrayals of life at the 16th century English court.

This is no Bowdlerized presentation of history, however, and sex and violence have not been removed from the story so much as they have been cast off center stage. Certainly, a story that involves the disposal of several royal wives can’t be accused of prudery, and there’s plenty of offhand discussion of sex as well. There are also some brief references to torture which are the more frightening because they come and go so quickly, as if they are such an ordinary part of life as to not be worth dwelling on.

The six episodes of Wolf Hall take place over a relatively brief period, from 1529 to 1536, during the reign of Henry VIII, with flashbacks to earlier periods. The central character, however, is not the king but Thomas Cromwell, who rose from nowhere to become a key advisor to Henry. As with some of the most successful recent biopics (Selma and Capote immediately come to mind), the decision to restrict the action to a few years in the central subject’s life, rather than trying to do a cradle-to-grave treatment, results in a story that is not only more satisfying to the audience, but also allows the director and actors to produce a portrait with greater detail and depth.

The title refers not only to the name of the Seymour family seat, Wulfhall, but also to the proverb that “man is wolf to man”. That characterization of the world of Thomas Cromwell might actually be insulting to wolves, who presumable don’t engage in activities like torture and executions of convenience. Nor, I suppose, do they abuse their offspring in the ways that Cromwell’s father is depicted in flashbacks as displaying toward his son.

Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell is one of the central attractions of the series. Rylance is a noted stage actor, with multiple Olivier and Tony Awards to his credit, and I’ve been wanting to see him in action ever since reading reviews of his performance in Jerusalem at the Music Box Theatre in New York in 2011. His portrayal of Cromwell, who was both a man of principle and a first-rate opportunist, is a masterpieces of restraint, with Rylance doing exactly what is necessary — and no more than that — in every scene. This fictional Cromwell has been constructed to appeal to audiences who want to cheer for the self-made man who is also a loving husband and father, and Rylance is able to integrate the softer side of his character with the ruthlessness that allowed him to prosper in a cutthroat world.

Damian Lewis portrays Henry VIII as a young, handsome, and lusty king whose reason for wanting to get rid of his wives has as much to do with his desire to have someone else as it does their failure to provide a male heir. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, Henry revels in both his power and his corruption. After all, he’s the King of England, and the concept of the balance of power as a principle of good government lay far in the future. Selfish and self-indulgent though he may be, Henry is also smart enough to recognize Cromwell’s talents and put him to work.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster does well in the supporting role of Ralph Sadler, a ward of Cromwell’s who is more like him in intelligence and ambition than is his own son. Jonathan Pryce has a relatively brief but memorable turn as Thomas Wolsey, and Joanne Whalley (Catherine of Aragon), Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn), and Kate Phillips (Jane Seymour) create memorable and contrasting characters for the first three wives of Henry VIII.

Wolf Hall also offers up the reliable pleasures of a large-budget BBC period production. Some of England’s great homes and cathedrals are incorporated as shooting locations, including Montacute House (standing in for Greenwich Palace, Henry’s London seat), Lacock Abbey (standing in for Wolf Hall), Barrington Court (York Place/Whitehall, Wolsey’s home), and Great Chalfield Manor (Austin Friars, Cromwell’s home). Production design by Pat Campbell and costume design by Joanna Eatwell reflect both the splendor and the horror of life in the Tudor period.

The DVD special features package is adequate, but no more. Three featurettes provide an introduction to the real events behind the series, background to the creation of the TV series, and the production design. In addition, video interviews are provided with director Peter Kosminsky, Rylance, Mark Gatiss, Lewis, Pryce, and Foy.

RATING 8 / 10