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"Wolf Hall" Episode 1 Review (No Spoilers, Except for Historical Facts...)

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In January of this year, BBC Two released a television adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, based on the Tudor period of history.  They are told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, who in his lifetime rose from obscurity to adviser and close confidante to the King of England.

It has felt like a very long wait for "Wolf Hall" to begin airing in the US, but it is finally here.  Episode one aired on PBS's Masterpiece segment on April 5th, and will continue to air Sunday evenings at 10/9c.

The first episode flings us right into the midst of the turbulence surrounding Henry VIII's quest to obtain an annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon.  According to the dramatic historic tale most of us are at least somewhat familiar with, the heart and mind of King Henry are filled with angst over two great issues.  First, he has convinced himself that the reason he has no male heirs by the 1520s is that God is punishing him for having wed his brother's widow.  Second, he has become completely besotted with the Lady Anne Boleyn.

However, "Wolf Hall" does not recount these events to us from the perspective of the virile, passionate Harry.  Rather, we learn of these events and the politics complicating them while we get to know the person and circumstances of Thomas Cromwell.

I have not read extensively on Cromwell in particular.  I have read a great deal on Henry VIII and his succession of wives, and therefore have gleaned some knowledge of Cromwell by proxy.  Most of my impressions of the man I have gained from watching various portrayals of him on screen.  I do know that the general consensus about him is that he was sharp-minded, manipulative, and slippery.

For some reason, however, I find myself sympathetic to Cromwell, especially Mark Rylance's Cromwell.  I had not heard the name of Rylance before the casting of "Wolf Hall," and more to my embarrassment since only a little research revealed his many accolades and long career in stage acting.  So mesmeric is Rylance's presence on screen that he needs only understatement and subtlety in both facial expression and vocal inflection to virtually carry the entire episode, while wearing one costume and sitting or standing very still the whole time.  He gives Cromwell a contemplative, forlorn, almost weary countenance that does a great deal of the characterization for the series on its own.

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For someone who has only recently delved into deeper study of the Tudor era, it is striking to me in how many different ways the aesthetic of the period can be displayed.  The 1970 TV miniseries "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" was so austere in its portrayal of the era that it came across as an under-funded stage production.  The most opulent items on set were the costumes, which were mostly puke-colored and as sumptuous as dusty curtains.  Showtime's "The Tudors" erred on the opposite end of the spectrum with anachronistic costuming and dialogue, but for "The Tudors" at least I can say that the vibrance, lavishness, and opulent iconography of Henry's court was apparent.  The endlessly detailed and sprawling architecture was proudly featured, and emphasized when a character was filmed stomping from one end of a hall to the other.

"Wolf Hall" seems to fall somewhere in the middle - never shying away from exposing life in the late Middle Ages to be often cold, dark, strenuous, austere, and frightening.  Since we begin our tale from the point of view of a blacksmith's-son-turned-lawyer of modest wealth, this makes sense.  It remains to be seen if we will spend much time in the presence of Harry or Anne in all their pomp and circumstance.

Since "Wolf Hall" is part of PBS's Masterpiece program, I should expect it to be relatively family-friendly, and it should cut away from disturbing scenes that are inevitably to come in future episodes.  However, this is the 1500s - a dark time for human rights, medicine, and politics, so mature subject matter is inherent.  Also, choose a time to watch when there will be minimal distractions - if you look away you will miss something!


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