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Thomas Cromwell, Dead Since 1540, Is Television's Hottest Star

The TV adaptation of Wolf Hall introduces American viewers to the Machiavellian politician from the 16th century who assisted in the bloody dissolution of England's monasteries and helped King Henry VIII split from the Church in Rome.

by Aidan Flax-Clark
Apr 24 2015, 4:20pm

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in 'Wolf Hall.' Courtesy of BBC/Company Productions, Ltd

He hasn't starred in a sex tape or signed on to do a reality show about being rich and horrible in a major metropolis; he hasn't revealed himself as the true identity of Banksy or done whatever stupid thing Justin Bieber got noticed for doing this week. He's not even alive. But somehow 16th-century powerbroker and politician Thomas Cromwell has been pretty hot lately. The subject of two Booker Prize-winning novels by Hilary Mantel—Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies—he (or the character based on him) has in recent weeks both convinced playgoers on either side of the Atlantic to sit through a two-part six-hour historical drama about him and persuaded actor Mark Rylance to descend from his aristocratic perch in the theater to the solidly pedestrian land of television to be Cromwell's small-screen avatar on a BBC/PBS production of Wolf Hall.

The man at the center of the Wolf Hall TV adaptation, which had its American premiere on Masterpiece a few weeks ago, ushered in the troubled closing period of King Henry VIII's reign. For playing that dubious part in history, he has been alternately compared to some of our culture's favorite villains, including Dick Cheney, for his "ice-cold ambition"; fictional Machiavellian favorite Petyr Baelish (AKA Littlefinger) from Game of Thrones, for his relentless and sometimes sadistic drive to the top; and even ISIS, for his murderous religious persecution.

Cromwell's bad rap isn't totally undeserved. Among other things, he helped England split from the Church in Rome so that Henry's marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, could be annulled—and so that he could then assist in the king's marriage and then... separation from Anne Boleyn. He also oversaw the bloody dissolution of England's monasteries, a process which, apparently to his way of thinking, required having monks hung in their habits, beheaded, drawn and quartered—and, for a lucky few, disemboweled while still conscious.

The what of Cromwell's life isn't much disputed, but the why of it is far less clear. Mantel's books, and thus the TV show, have invented very little about the facts: "It's really in the gaps, in the erasures, that I think the novelist can go to work," she told Terry Gross in 2012. By placing Cromwell's dirty work within reasonably imagined historical and personal contexts, a more sympathetic human being starts to emerge: a family man devoted to his wife and children and even in-laws, someone who was fiercely loyal to the patrons who raised him up and ready to do similar service for protégés whose abilities he believed in. A man who abhorred decadences among the clergy and saw the Church for the political institution it was, not the sanctified fantasy that its bureaucracy would have you believe in.

Mantel reportedly worked more closely on adapting this more congenial Cromwell to the stage than she did the small screen. However, when I heard about the TV show and that Mark Rylance was playing Thomas Cromwell, I just about wet myself. A period drama starring " the greatest English theater actor of his generation " along with a mélange of supporting actors whose work has graced a delicious buffet of TV/movie nerd lusts like Sherlock, Game of Thrones, and The Lord of the Rings all in service of an epic, real-life story of such greed, violence, and machination that it makes the diabolical realpolitik of House of Cards look like the optimistic hope-gasm of The West Wing?

In approximating the complicated web of intrigue within Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the show more or less succeeds. The web is equally complicated and remains intriguing as it jumps from book Wolf to TV Wolf. In other respects, though, the show has been a little disappointing so far. I'm only three episodes in, but it's got problems. Problems that feel especially irritating if you've read the novels.

First, each episode opens with scene-setting title cards. "It's 1529," reads the first card in the first episode. "Henry VIII is on the throne—married to Katherine of Aragon for 20 years without producing a male heir. He has been petitioning the Pope for an annulment for two years without success. Cardinal Wolsey—Lord Chancellor and Henry's advocate in the petition to Rome—has failed his Sovereign in only this one matter."

"And Henry is not a forgiving man."

I'm sure Wolsey failed Henry in a couple matters, but OK, fine. The real problem is with that last sentence. This isn't another story about Henry VIII, as it suggests. We've had plenty of those, all the way from Shakespeare to Philippa Gregory. This is about Thomas Cromwell. As Mantel explained, "This is a great untold story, or at least it wasn't told until now... all the fiction and all the drama we have about Henry VIII's reign and the figure of Cromwell is somehow marginal or missing, and yet he was central. And historians know that, but it just hadn't percolated through to fictionalized narratives."

But such a forceful opening gambit kind of filters Cromwell out from the get-go. Fortunately this doesn't abide too strongly as the show progresses, but it makes me suspicious of how Peter Kosmisnky and Peter Straughan, the series writer and director, respectively, perceive what story it is they're actually retelling. Surely you don't have Cromwell's story without Henry, but that doesn't change who the main character is. Jack Burden doesn't have a story to tell in All the King's Men without working for Willie Stark, but it's still the king's man whose story we're told.

By placing Cromwell's dirty work within reasonably imagined historical and personal contexts, a more sympathetic human being starts to emerge.

Book Wolf isn't the easiest thing you'll ever read, but it's not that hard to get into—it isn't James Joyce but it isn't Clive Cussler, either. Mantel's writing style is accessible, but the plot itself is intricate—I know that roving bands of raging academics would hang me in my habit for saying it like this, but as far as the number of characters and the network of conflicts go, Wolf Hall is Game of Thrones-level complex. Characters' moves and motivations tend toward the opaque—the windows into the human heart require a bit of prying.

While Mantel's readymade dialogue is well employed by the show—lifted from the books as verbatim as possible—those intricacies of narrative and plot aren't quite handled as well, especially at first. A lot of people get introduced quickly, and it's pretty much impossible keep track of who they are or what they want. Meanwhile, within minutes of the first episode opening, we've jumped from 1529 to 1521 to 1525 to 1527 and back to 1529 without the same kind of gentle prompts—like "Summer 1527"—that Mantel uses to help readers through the same temporal shifts. I had read the books and I was even a little at a loss. My wife, who hadn't, got up from the couch 20 minutes in never to return. TV Wolf had an elegant template to work off of that they didn't exactly avail themselves of.

Speaking of phrases that might occasion my drawing and quartering, I don't think Mark Rylance was the right choice for Cromwell. No comment on his acting, which, even to someone who knows nothing about how to do it, is incredible. He quickly has you believing that he is a man who can snap right from snuggling bunnies and cuddling kittens to contradicting a king or ordering the disembowelment of a live monk. But Rylance doesn't look the part. Which shouldn't matter, except that much of the power that Mantel's Cromwell exudes comes from how he looks, which is not like the slim, somewhat diminutive Rylance but rather the famous Hans Holbein portrait, thick and threatening. His menacing meatiness is called out a lot in the book: "Look at you, boy. You could cripple the brute in a fair fight," his brother-in-law says to him at the ripe age of 15. "Thomas, it is like hugging a seawall. What are you made of?" Henry marvels to him some three decades later. Rylance, whatever spectacular powers of emotion and intimidation at his disposal, is simply no seawall, and I'm still not convinced that he could take me in a fight.

But don't shit in my bangers just yet, British-drama enthusiasts. It's a remarkable cast. Even with the ones who don't quite look right, it's everything an Anglophilic period drama-loving heart could desire. Damian Lewis (Brody from Homeland) is an outstanding Henry. His piercing gaze, mercurial temperament, and red hair all evoke Mantel's portrait of the king. Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn nails the seductive antagonism that seems to have allowed her to so tightly coil the English monarch around her finger for all those years. And Anton Lesser's chirpy, disheveled gadfly of a Thomas More is everything you want to hate about the Utopia-writing hypocrite whose haughty espousal of personal piety and asceticism didn't quite live up to his actual bloodlust for players in the Reformation or his conniving for as much power as his faithful little hands could grasp.

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I know that all adaptations of books condense, rearrange, omit, and manipulate plot points, characters, and arcs to contend with the exigencies of telling long stories in compressed forms. I get how it works. But TV Wolf gets loose with a few plot points and historical details for reasons that seem to be less about TV storytelling and more about the show's creators trying to find some kind of narrative territory to mark as their own.

Like how the show handles what are probably the two most defining tragedies of Cromwell's personal life: the abuse he suffered as a boy at the hands of his father and the deaths of his wife and two daughters.

The first is given a 15-page overture in the novel, and, in addition to solid foundational character work, it reminds you that this, again, is not a story about unforgiving Henry, not one about the temptress Anne Boleyn, but about the spectacular rise and fall of our man Thomas. In the show it's a five-second flashback slapped into a quick scene when an older Thomas briefly and bitterly revisits his father while the old paterfamilias shoes a horse.

TV Wolf gets loose with a few plot points and historical details for reasons that seem to be less about TV storytelling and more about the show's creators trying to find some narrative territory to mark as their own.

As for the second tragedy, in history—and in Mantel's book—Cromwell's wife, Elizabeth, died in 1527, victim to a swift and deadly disease that raged through London that summer called the sweating sickness. Exactly when his daughters, Anne and Grace, died is less clear, but Mantel places their deaths side by side in the summer of 1529 from the same disease, a not unlikely scenario. But for some reason TV Wolf has them all die at the same time—on the exact same day. Just as Cromwell comes home from his hard day's work and learns of his wife's awful fate, as he tearfully encounters her corpse laid out in their bed, his young assistant Rafe runs in and says with quiet melodramatic urgency, "It's the girls."

Everyone runs to their room, only to find the little blond visions of youthful purity and innocence side by side in their bed, pale, motionless—dead.

Good god, Britain. What is with your television shows and their unwavering devotion to the melo-iest of melodrama? How many Matthew Crawleys need to die in "unexpected" car accidents an instant after meeting their precious newborn sons before you realize that you're sort of overdoing it? Is Cromwell losing his wife and two-thirds of his progeny not sticking enough for tragedy? I recognize that I'm being equally melodramatic about a small plot point. But do you really believe that, whether they died together or a few years apart, the loneliness and abandonment that Cromwell would have felt from it was any less bearable?

The way details slide around and change from book to movie or book to TV always leaves me in some kind of Sliding Doors scenario where I just don't know what universe I live in anymore. Did Liv Tyler fall in love with Aragorn in the The Lord of the Rings book? Did Tom Bombadil sing his stupid song in the movie? Can elves really do parcour on elephant trunks? I can't remember in Game of Thrones whether Jon Snow is 14 or in his 20s, whether Jorah Mormont is a fat slob or a muscular swashbuckler, or whether Renly Baratheon was outright fucking that guy or people just kind of thought he was gay. If Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time in Slaughterhouse Five, I think I'm unstuck in story.

Which is leading me to conclude that maybe I should just choose between reading the book or watching the screen adaptation—of any story. Doing both is making for too much dissociation. Not like drank-two-bottles-of-Robitussin-D kind of detachment. But I can't say that the nether region between the worlds is leaving me with any sense of a firm footing.

On the other hand, if I'm the kind of person who is finding his emotions ignited by assessing the quality of Masterpiece adaptations of British novels, I think this kind of cognitive slippage is about as close as I'll ever get to Robo-chugging. So off we go to episode four.

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Culture
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Wolf Hall
Thomas Cromwell
Mark Rylance
Hilary Mantel