Charting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall reached the midpoint of its six episode run this week. The story is hardly unfamiliar to us by now. In the past few years, Henry VIII’s on-screen outings have varied in tone from the BBC’s scholarly season of Tudor documentaries in 2013 to the sex-filled soap opera that was Showtime’s The Tudors. Add to that the popularity of historical fiction literature, brought firmly into the mainstream by the success of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and it could be asked whether there can still be anything possibly left to say on the matter. And yet, despite this over-exposure, the series debuted with BBC2’s highest viewing figures for a drama series in over a decade. Perhaps the answer for this lies in the promise to shift away from the usual trappings of historical drama when it comes to style over substance.
The buzz around Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels (on which the series is based) has focused on her precision in detailing the nature of power and politics in Cromwell’s England. This carries through into the adaptation: the narrative has more in common with House of Cards than The White Queen in its meticulous focus on the consequences of political action. More grounded are the characters themselves. For instance, episode two sees Damian Lewis’ Henry VIII admit to Cromwell: ‘Everyday I miss the Cardinal of York.’ His response is to quietly promise a thousand pounds for his former favourite, so long as Cromwell keeps it a secret. His version of the king is a far cry from the histrionic despot played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors. This plays into the most major departure that Wolf Hall makes from its predecessors: the positioning of Cromwell as the series’ centre rather than Henry and Anne themselves. Without the will-they-won’t-they-but-we-know-they-will-and-it-will-end-badly-for-a-lot-of-people tension that is at the crux of most familiar adaptations of Henry VIII’s reign, the genre has to shift from historical romance to political thriller to still be engaging.
The question of the first two episodes has been not just who can win the ear of the king, but whether Cromwell can enter the game at all. Both his background and that of Anne herself prohibits them from natural acceptance in the world of court. In episode one alone, Wolsey threatens to disinherit the heir of the north rather than let him marry someone of Anne’s ilk and Cromwell is all but part of the scenery as his position does not give him the right to speak to noblemen. The focus is not on Anne’s ascendancy, but his. This, again, is a wise move. So much has the break with Rome been mythologised in British culture that Anne’s displacement of Catherine of Aragon seems all but inevitable. Instead, it is Cromwell we see parcelling out titbits of advice to Henry when they are alone together, much in the way that he is told by Anne’s sister that she sells her body ‘by the inch’ for the promise of a secure place by the King’s side. Both characters identify a commodity which they possess and can package up for the use of Henry VIII. For Cromwell, it is his learning and his potential to be the administrator. and for Anne, it is her sexuality, and her potential to be the mother of an heir.
The disparity between these two relative trump cards lends itself again for the separation in the arcs of Anne and Cromwell which we can anticipate in the second half of the series. Anne manipulates and barters her way to the throne of England, but is ultimately failed not by her political ability, but also by her own biology, over which she can exercise no control. Cromwell, on the other hand, can win or lose only by his ability to remain useful and to stay ahead of his competition. And so, we find ourselves in a far more modern arena. Wolf Hall takes its drama from the fact that we are not nearly as certain what Cromwell’s ambitions are, nor what his intentions are if he achieves them. As an ambassador says to him: “A world in which Anne can be Queen is a world where Cromwell can be….” What? I suppose the only way to find out is to keep watching.