New BBC TV Show on Henry VIII Is a Cut Above the Rest

'Wolf Hall' highlights the limitations of absolute power in the court of Henry VIII, but portrays the women as capable, and even ruthless.

It looks like the Dark Ages, even though chronologically it is already the dawn of the Renaissance. The new historical BBC series “Wolf Hall” (six episodes started its Israeli run on Yes Oh on June 21, and is on Yes VOD and Yes Binge) takes place between 1533 and 1536, roughly the dates of the crowning and beheading of Ann Boleyn, the second (out of six) wives of Henry VIII.

It looks dark not only because of the grim tale that unfolds, but mainly due to its director Peter Kosminsky’s decision to shoot many scenes of his TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel by candlelight, with many actors bumping into each other during filming. And that is only one of the many confusing elements of this series. Among the others is the fact that the main character of the series is not the queen, and not even the king, who can’t make up his mind about the wife he wants, but is the grey eminence Thomas Cromwell. Another is that its title refers to the stately home of Ann’s successor between King Henry’s sheets, Jane Seymour, a minor character in the first season.

For those of us who think they know everything there is to know about Henry the Eighth, including the fact that he was not the eighth husband of a woman who made a point to wed only males named Henry, think again.

Most of our common knowledge about this Tudor monarch is based on the 1933 movie “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” made by Alexander Korda, in which Charles Laughton cavorts as the gravity challenged (i.e. fat) life of the party, fond of fun, food and fondling. The counterpoint to that portrait was provided by Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for all Seasons,” which shifted the focus from the king (played on screen in the 1966 movie by Robert Shaw) to the Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, who refuses to give in to the king’s taste in women and recognize the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to make way for Ann Boleyn. More than anything, it was Paul Scofield’s charisma, on the stage and on screen, which cut the king and his women to their truer size, as mere pawns in a game bigger then their own, the one between Church and State, Soul and Body, Head and Loins. There is also another TV series, “The Tudors,” covering the same events.

Hilary Mantel, in her widely acclaimed novels (“Wolf Hall,” “Bring Up the Bodies,” and a third in the works) shifted the kaleidoscope again. Now the story is mainly about Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son from Putney who works his way up to be a loyal servant who knows how to survive when his masters’ fortunes change. In the series he is played by Mark Rylance, one of the most widely respected Shakespearean actors of our time, who had a very successful tenure as the artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London. He is usually not afraid to go over the top and be as theatrical as one can get (recently he was hilariously funny and immensly touching as Olivia in “Twelfth Night,” in the West End and on Broadway). Here he is uncharacteristically subdued, his 
inscrutable gaze watching over the events, while he manages, without ever panicking or losing his calm or wits, to stay on top of things, and even – to some extent – to mastermind them.

But the most interesting theme of the series, in my view, is that it highlights for those who still don’t get it how limited are the “absolute powers” that be. King Henry, whose word can send any man or woman to their death if he so fancies, is ruled by his passions and fears (he needs a male successor, or else), and is virtually helpless against people and institutions who are ruled by faith and absolutes. He may succeed in formally becoming Head of the Church of England and make Parliament vote anyway he likes them to; he may order “off with his - or her - head” as many times as he likes (and in 2015 we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books, with the Red Queen solving every problem with “off with his head”), but his own head will forever lie uneasy, as the favorite playwright of his daughter Elizabeth put it. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, and it doesn’t matter on whose bosom.

Damian Lewis plays the unhappy monarch, at this stage still fairly trim, as he became obese only following the events in the series. If Rylance comes over as calm and collected, even if tormented within, Lewis looks mainly haunted and unhappy.

The other thing Mantel, in her books, and the BBC in the series, drew attention to was the extent to which the women in the story – the six wives, but also all their ladies in waiting, and the wives and daughters of various males – are not mere innocent pawns or lambs led to the slaughter.

According to the series, Ann Boleyn (played by Claire Foy) was a young, able and power hungry woman who knew how to use her body to get her way (and fun). She is a political tool in the hands of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, but she is also very astute, and ruthless, in playing her own game, even against her uncle when she sees fit, which is more often than not. She is fully aware of the stakes, and is willing to gamble with her soul, body and head. Which she loses, of course. But in the wings, in “Wolf Hall,” Jane Seymour, another very able young woman, awaits her cue.

This brings me to the last scene of the series, which echoes the ending of the film “A Man for All Seasons,” where More-Scofield ascends the gallows oh-so-nobly. Here it is Ann Boleyn’s moment to show where it is all heading. It is not a spoiler, rest assured. But when you watch it, think not about the kings and queens of yore. Think ISIS beheadings right and left, as a spectacle for the numbed and confused public, watching series and newscasts, following the rolling heads and trying not to lose what’s left of their wits.