In this fast-paced world of action-driven films, it’s truly marvelous to come across a character piece. Like a fine piece of art, the first episode of Wolf Hall paints us an impression of Thomas Cromwell, an enigmatic man who plays his cards very close to his chest – when he is not entertaining Cardinal Wolsey with them. This is a man of ambition and loyalty, a lawyer who in seeking to do “greater” things sought to work for Wolsey and is now watching the cardinal’s descent into poverty and disgrace, because he cannot do the one thing King Henry wants: get him an annulment. It is in the quieter moments of this episode where these characters shine the most; the wistful remembrance of Wolsey, commenting on the first time he saw Katharine of Aragon. “When she danced,” he muses, “her red hair slid over her shoulders…”
“God forgive you?” injects Cromwell astutely; the cardinal laughs and says, “God forgive us all.” Rather than telling us how beautiful she was, or slapping us in the face with a crass sexual insinuation, the writer leaves it for us to sense in the air. Perhaps this is what the book author meant when she said she refused to allow her story to be “dumbed down for the masses.” More insinuation, less obviousness. There are certainly insinuations abounding here, but quiet ones. The simple gesture of Cromwell picking up a hammer when he goes to meet his father after a twenty year or more silence speaks volumes – even more than the brutal flashbacks of him being beaten to a pulp. “Your father has never even met our children,” his wife reminds him earlier in the story; and her husband, in the same dry wit that permeates his life, answers, “Good. Let us keep it that way.”
What the episode does quite easily is tug on the heartstrings, both with Wolsey and Cromwell. Wolsey was the most powerful Church Man in England prior to Anne Boleyn’s arrival on the scene, and here we catch the good-natured man on a feeble note. He is fleshed out in a single episode — a man who delights in card tricks, mentions praying for all his enemies but not Cromwell as a joke, and then offers him a blessing. It is very easy to sense what is never said, that Wolsey is a replacement father to Cromwell. Our emotions are hit in nearly the first frame, when we see his face full of subtle fear as others march in to tell him to vacate the premises. Gradually, others seep into the narrative, but not at so rapid a place that we forget this is Cromwell’s story. No, we must know him as a man first, a husband and a father, before thrusting him into the court; the simple act of stroking the curvaceous designs inside his wife’s prayer book tells us more about him than words – years after her and his children’s death from the sweating sickness.
Perhaps wisely, Henry VIII does not make an appearance until nearly the end, but the threat of his disapproval is woven into the narrative throughout, an ominous presence lurking in the shadows. Much the same can be said of Anne Boleyn, whose icy exchange with Cromwell finally manifests and grants us insight into her perceived haughtiness (well, this is Cromvell’s story after all) and her relationship with her sister, who chases after Cromwell to congratulate him on their parry of words, and implies she cannot wait for the second round. Cromwell, in a master stroke of dry wit, lampoons her sister so snidely that Mary Boleyn dissolves into a fit of giggles. It is a combination of this wit, his intelligence (a few minutes later, he skillfully verbally dances his way through a perilous argument with Henry VIII), and his restrained passion that makes us like him. He is nothing if not sensible. He reminds his fellow budding Reformists that Cardinal Wolsey in power is more desirable than Sir Thomas More, for Wolsey will burn Bibles and “More will burn men.” He also discreetly purchases a Tyndale New Testament from Germany, and carefully nudges his wife toward it. “There is no talk of popes, or nuns, or relics,” he hints to her, and then with a smile allows her to choose to keep her decorated prayer book instead.
The flashback narrative may be confusing at first, but it is done better than most I have seen; as Cromwell navigates the court and engages with people, we see previous flashes of interaction between them. He pauses to contemplate the judicial hall and it transforms into the Queen’s trial. How much of this narrative style will continue through subsequent episodes, I do not know, but I hope for more of it, merely for the chance to explore facets of their lives unexplored previously in Tudor dramas. I like spending time with secondary figures such as Wolsey, whom Sir Thomas More condemns for his foolishness in “rising too high.” Not one to let an opportunity to point out hypocrisy pass, Cromwell fires back that More has also risen high; what is that, he ponders, a f–cking accident?
At the risk of sounding too enamored with (full disclosure: I watched it twice in one evening), it is not perfect. I did not mind the modern inflections and dialogue but they are out of period. The costuming is authentic (seeing the little bone-sliver buttons on Cromwell delighted me) and problematic — most of the bodices are ill-fitted and wrinkle due to a lack of proper undergarments on the actresses. They are, however, mercifully, better looking on screen than in photographs. The performances range from masterful (the lead actor) to passable, while the music is at times grating and intrusive. Copious amounts of back story are told through conversations … but I will not fault the actor for that, considering that not every viewer has immersed themselves as completely in history as the Tudorphiles. Plot exposition must go somewhere.
Some are calling this program “slow and boring,” but this is not The Tudors, where we expect a beautiful maiden to be defrocked and shoved into Henry’s chambers at any moment. This is a historical drama intended to carry us through a narrative driven as much by character development as events. It wants us to immerse us into a bygone world rather than the skim the surface. Not to dash through it, but to let its raindrops color our perspective. There are inaccuracies and plenty will rightfully point them out, but I am intrigued to know more of this Cromwell. I already like him – seeing his loving interaction with his precious little girl in her tragically foreshadowing “angel wings” was enough to win me over – but I want to see him more fully, and to enjoy more of his cunning.
“I believe Katharine,” his son says minutes after the trial; and his father, wisely, tells him to not engage himself in such things.
After all, the matters of kings and queens are above the Cromwells … are they not?