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Hilary Mantel’s fascination with Tudors has dark power in TV’s “Wolf Hall”

There are no “symbolic lessons” to be learned from the Tudor saga

(C) Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC

The novelist Hilary Mantel is a latecomer to fame. She is not part of Britain’s literary establishment. Though she belongs to the same generation, roughly, as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, her reputation, until her best-selling novel Wolf Hall came out in 2009, was nothing like theirs. She’s been in poor health for much of her life and doesn’t travel often. She doesn’t live in London, doesn’t have a posh accent, and doesn’t turn up on the chat shows. Also contributing to her near-invisibility was that she’s a literary chameleon of sorts. She’s written several historical novels, but also political thrillers and a couple of very black comedies. Except for the Tudor-themed Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, in fact, no two books of hers are alike. There’s no such thing as a recognizable Mantel style or a persistent Mantel preoccupation—unless it’s our inability to recognize evil when it’s right in front of us.

Right now, though, Mantel seems to be everywhere. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, having already snagged a pair of Man Booker prizes—Britain’s equivalent of the National Book Award—are enjoying a remarkable American afterlife: not just a television run but a stage adaptation, and both at the same time. Wolf Hall, a six-part BBC adaptation, by Peter Straughan, starts Sunday on PBS (when shown in England recently it was one of the most-watched series in decades); and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Wolf Hall: Parts 1 and 2,” by Mike Poulton, another hit in England, opens on Broadway April 9th.

Hilary Mantel

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Mantel’s story is set during the reign of Henry VIII and dramatizes his lengthy struggle to fend off the Catholic Church and find himself a wife who can provide him with a male heir. You might have thought that after Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman snipping at each other in “The Other Boleyn Girl,” and Jonathan Rhys Meyers sulking like a rock star in “The Tudors,” we’d had our fill of bosom-heaving and of Henry’s marital woes for a while. But both on the page and onscreen (I haven’t seen the plays yet) Mantel’s version helps explain our ongoing fascination with the Tudors. In her telling, the Henry story is not so much about a corpulent, concupiscent monarch demanding to have his way. It’s about how combustible religion and politics prove to be when you mix them together—a lesson we’re still learning—and about the power of sex and the sexiness of power.

Speaking on the phone earlier this week, Mantel said that she’d had Henry in her sights since her early 20s, but until she’d established herself as a writer she didn’t have the nerve to take on the necessary years of research. She also cautioned against treating the Tudors as dress rehearsals for our contemporary lives. “We can’t use them for symbolic lessons,” she said. “We have to respect that they were living their own lives—in the present, not in the service of our imaginations. They didn’t know their own story.”

In Wolf Hall, the Tudors really are different: they’re superstitious and fatalistic; they accept the divine right of kingship as a religious truth; they take for granted a degree of government-sanctioned cruelty and torture that might give even ISIS pause. And yet at least one of the characters—Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chancellor, from whose point of view the story is told—seems a figure ahead of his time. According to the usual telling—in the Robert Bolt play “A Man for All Seasons,” for example—Cromwell is a villain, Henry’s craven henchman, a vile persecutor of the saintly Thomas More, whose post he usurps. In an inspired move, Mantel flips it around. Her More is no saint—a creep, rather: stiff-necked, self-regarding, excessively fond of torturing heretics. Cromwell, in the beginning at least, is kindly and humane and immensely talented, a shrewd businessman and administrator, uniquely able to decipher the Book of Henry, or the king’s moods. Like any corporate infighter, he knows how to read the boss.

The TV version is told through Cromwell’s eyes, more or less, but not from inside his head, as the novel is, and it necessarily untangles the story a bit. In Mark Rylance’s brilliant performance we get a chance to watch Cromwell think. Rylance brings tremendous stillness and

focus to the role; his Cromwell brings to mind Francis Underwood in “House of Cards,” planning so far ahead that he’s already playing hands that haven’t even been dealt. This Cromwell understands two things that set him apart from his contemporaries and make him more like us. One is that money is power, more than might. “The world is run from counting houses,” he explains. And because he comes from nothing—he is the son of a blacksmith, as everyone keeps reminding him—he also knows that status is not the same as power.

Cromwell’s great managerial mistake is that he doesn’t network enough. One of the series’ most dramatic moments comes in Episode 5, when Henry is thought to be dead after a jousting accident and Cromwell realizes that he has no other protector than the increasingly mercurial king. Henry here is played by Damien Lewis—Brody from “Homeland”—and it takes a while to get your head around this, and stop imagining that he must be a double agent sent by the King of France. This Henry is neither a lech nor an infidel, as some accounts would have him, but someone who, skillfully played by Anne, finds his political frustration turning into sexual anxiety, and vice versa. He too seems an oddly modern figure: a head of state nipped at by a contentious legislature and hectored by a disapproving right-wing clergy. (And as the fervor attending the Kate Middleton pregnancies reminds us, Henry is far from the only Royal to have got over-excited at the prospect of male offspring.)

By Episode Six, we see something new in Cromwell—a temper, more than a hint of cruelty, a growing awareness that even as his power is at its highest it’s also most vulnerable. We know where all this is heading. Mantel is already at work on Volume 3, which will end with Cromwell’s execution, coming when he least expects it. But Mantel said she has been learning something new about her character just from watching actors play him, and has even rewritten some sections. She particularly likes watching the stage version. “Every night it’s a little bit different,” she said. “You find yourself thinking just as the real people did, wondering how it will all come out.”

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