Any history buff is well and truly familiar with the story of Henry VIII and his many wives. There have been many books written and movies and TV shows made about his reign. Most recently The Tudors provided a sexed-up look at Henry and all his wives. The latest to take a new tack with much of the story is Wolf Hall, which is told more or less from the perspective of historical figure Thomas Cromwell.
Cromwell is portrayed as perfectly dull and unassuming – and Mark Rylance looks exactly like these historical portraits of the real guy. It is something of a revelation when this modest man saunters in and so politely threatens people, such as when Harry Percy claims he has a binding marriage contract with Anne Boleyn, which would prevent her marrying King Henry.
Yes, politeness and decorum mixed with menacing threat: Cromwell will get someone to “bite the bollocks off” Percy if he refuses to quit his claim to Anne.
It is Rylance as “the ruffian” and cunning lawyer Cromwell that keeps the story moving forward and keeps me interested. Despite the brilliance of his wielding the law and persuasive powers, Cromwell appears fair, even if King Henry calls him out at one point, threatening, “Do I keep you for what’s easy? Do you think I’ve promoted you for the charm of your presence? I keep you on because you are a serpent. Do not be a viper in my person.” The balance is struck as well as it is thanks to Rylance’s subtle performance. Damian Lewis as Henry VIII seems a bit miscast – and it is rather a small role. I tend to think he has worked well with what he has here, but despite the story revolving around him, it is not really about him. Lewis is always excellent as a sniveling tyrant, much as he showed in the miniseries, The Forsyte Saga. He even showed us some of this indecision in his conflicted self-destruction as Nicholas Brody in Homeland.
Rylance’s performance, combined with writing that projects modernity onto an age-old story, bringing intrigues and political machinations to life, make Wolf Hall one of, if not, the best fictionalized pieces on this era. It would not seem logical that something like this would garner high viewer numbers, but in fact, Wolf Hall appears to speak for itself in that regard. A persuasive aspect of Wolf Hall that initially draws one in is its attention to historical detail, which is no accident. But it is the rich and refined performances that elevate this show to greatness (such as those of Joanne Whalley as the cast-aside Catherine of Aragon, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn), none more so than Rylance’s performance. (It may be more surprising to viewers because Rylance is not well-known outside of theater work, although I remember him from the small-scale but somewhat controversial film from Patrice Chéreau, RIP, Intimacy (2001), which featured actual sexual acts between the actors. It raised a lot of eyebrows, as if it were pornography or just lasciviousness for the sake of raising the film’s profile. The film, though, showed exactly the tawdriness and neediness of this sexual affair between the two main characters – again, elevated by Rylance’s performance alongside New Zealand actress Kerry Fox, who as recently as 2012 was still defending her performing a real sex act in a film from more than a decade earlier.)
Rylance is a respected stage actor, and as I felt – and later read – his being virtually unknown to television audiences created a double blindside. We the viewers don’t expect this committed, understated yet powerhouse performance – and most of the characters that Cromwell comes up against underestimate his cunning and influence… but definitely should not.