Wolf Hall (2015)
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Audiences are sharply divided on this miniseries -- it is either "the best costume drama of the last decade," or "the dullest miniseries in years." In my opinion, the truth lies somewhere in-between. It is slow and ponderous, but an interesting twist on a tale told many times before.
The good-natured Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) has fallen out of favor with King Henry VIII (Damien Lewis). His enemies are crowing over his defeat, but his good friend and faithful lawyer Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is determined not to see him founder. Though the two men share very different faiths, with Cromwell leaning toward Reformist views, he defends him to the end ... and then sees an opportunity to advance himself in Henry's court. His frank assessment of others and their situations amuses the king, who finds him useful and puts him to work at court.
His views put him at odds with Sir Thomas More (Anton Lesser), who seeks to wipe Reform from the country before it takes root, and also puts him in a precarious position with Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), who wants her place on the throne and will do anything to get it. The miniseries covers her rise and fall, as well as the events centered around "the King's Great Matter" -- his divorce from Katharine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley). Much has been made of its revisionist history; it takes a historical figure not known for his generous or kind nature and paints him as a loving father and broad-minded man who sits in judgment of More's more brutal methods of interrogation. At one point, this Cromwell remarks that he merely wants the boy frightened of the tools of torture; in reality, Mark Smeaton was brutally tortured into admitting false information.
However you feel about interpretations of historical figures in different lights (this is based, after all, on a fictionalized account in novel form), the miniseries itself is quite well done in most respects. Attention is paid to authenticity (the costumes sometimes suffer as a result, with wrinkles appearing where they ought not to be) and the cast is very good. Rylance dominates the screen with his "stillness," conveying a great deal in very few words. Even so, the claims of dullness are not unfounded, though more problematic in the first two episodes. The more charismatic historical figures (Henry and in this case, the Duke of Suffolk) are often absent. This is Cromwell's side of events, and as such, enormous gaps exist in the narrative. We jump around either mentioning or barely skimming past major historical events, which left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. Those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of this period will be somewhat lost. However, from episode three onward, the pace becomes steadier, we spend more time with the king and his feisty wife, and it barrels toward a poignant and sad conclusion that leaves the audience sinking into a hole of deep realization as to what the main character has gotten himself into.
Truthfully, I thought the last couple of episodes more powerful than the earlier ones, because they had actual events transpiring as opposed to more philosophical discussions. But where this series excels is what is written between the lines. It is not all spelled out for the audience, which means it requires them to pay attention. I was disappointed in the bawdy language that popped up throughout since it lessened the sophistication of it all, but it was not a bad way to spend a long weekend.
Implications of adultery (a man kisses another man's wife and wakes up in bed next to her); lots of crass sexual conversation (discussion of adultery, incest, and consummating marriages). A man fantasizes about touching a woman's cleavage. A woman's bare breasts are briefly shown at an upstairs window in a brothel.
A dozen f-words, one use of c*nt, scattered profanities and occasional harsh abuses of deity (several abuses of Jesus' name in some form).
One implied beheading; flashbacks show a man beating and kicking his son mercilessly.