Wolf Hall: The Modernity of Thomas Cromwell

Flickering candle flames in chiaroscuro-drenched rooms. Sunbeams that stream through castle windows, casting clear patterns on the floor. Innumerable shots in the engrossing six-hour miniseries Wolf Hall seem to scrupulously define—even call attention to—to the sources of natural light that the tale’s 16th-century characters depend on. Of course, resonant visuals and careful historic touches are what you’d expect from pedigreed programming like Wolf Hall, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning novels that airs April 5-May 10, as part of PBS’s Masterpiece programming.

But the meticulous lighting here amounts to more than just pretty cinematography and check-the-boxes historical verisimilitude: It contributes to one of the salient themes of the miniseries, which chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who becomes the chief fixer for King Henry VIII. Amidst the power struggles and religious turmoil of Tudor England, Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is a lawyer whose level head and supreme competence become essential to Henry (Damian Lewis), especially when the monarch decides to get rid of Wife # 2, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). In the larger scheme of things, Cromwell is essentially a forerunner of the modern era. He is a capitalist—a player in an information economy—living amidst the dying embers of feudalism. He is a self-made man, surrounded by people accustomed to a rigid social order.

The luminous candle flames and daylight-channeling windows in the televised Wolf Hall, directed by Peter Kosminsky, underscore the contrast between Cromwell and his environment. Surrounded as we are by bulbs and glowing screens, it is hard to imagine functioning in the years before electricity. For Cromwell, such a dispensation was normal—and yet, in this telling, he is able to analyze financial and legal realities as efficiently as any accountant-turned-lawyer  living in calculator-and-legal-database times. 

The artful and quite faithful adaption of Mantel’s brilliant novels (both Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies) by screenwriter Peter Straughan includes numerous moments testifying to Cromwell’s newfangled worldview. When we first glimpse the character, he is advising his employer Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) on nitpicky legal arguments that might help the cleric put the brakes on a looming downfall, King Henry having turned his favor elsewhere. Later, when someone in the anti-Boleyn camp tells Cromwell, “We know you’re a Lutheran,” he replies simply, “I’m a banker.”

And, in one pointed scene, when the mild-mannered Cromwell is softly threatening a courtier who stands in the way of the King’s plans, he advances an argument that will sound familiar to anyone aware of our own era’s interconnected global economy.

“The world is not run from where you think it is—from border fortresses, even from Whitehall,” Cromwell says quietly, asserting his ability to choke off the courtier’s resources. “The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon, from wherever the merchant ships set sail off into the West. Not from castle walls: from counting houses, and the pens that scrape out your promissory notes.”

This Cromwell would be a natural for a profile on NPR’s Planet Money, or in the pages of Fast Company, if only radio and glossy magazines had existed back in Tudor England.

If the televised Wolf Hall manages to capture Mantel’s understanding of Cromwell-as-modern-man, it doesn’t quite do justice to her vision of his personality. Reading the books, you get the sense that Cromwell is a fellow with a sense of humor: It’s part of his psychological distance from the world around him. In the miniseries, which doesn’t plunge into its protagonist’s mind to the same extent, Cromwell comes across as a more melancholy person.

Always dressed in dark colors, keeping his voice down, Rylance radiates a still-waters-run deep reserve, tempered with an edge of pain. His facial expression is generally sober and brooding; you get the sense that the character is biting his tongue. Much of what he does seems to be distasteful to him. (By contrast, Thomas More—portrayed by Anton Lesser—seems less ambivalent about his own strong-arming behavior. At one point, we see More blithely reading as a heretic is tortured in his presence.)

Still, Rylance’s Cromwell gets to display some flashes of wit. Early on in their relationship, King Henry objects to Cromwell’s declaration that the country cannot afford to go to war. What is the alternative, Henry fumes? Should England’s king refrain from fighting—maybe huddle indoors like a sick girl?

“That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes,” Cromwell deadpans.

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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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