Just How Accurate is that Historical Drama? Wolf Hall

In today’s guest post, Karen Heenan, author of The Tudor Court books (Songbird and A Wider World) looks at the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s series focused on Thomas Cromwell.  

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC

 I’ve been a fan of Tudor-related TV since I first saw the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII in the early 1970s, when I was just 6 or 7 years old, and I will watch anything about the period, even if it makes me cringe. As a writer of Tudor-era novels, my excuse is that even badly done stories can have redeeming qualities, though some programs have come very close to disproving my theory.

Not Wolf Hall, though. Based on the first two novels of Hilary Mantel’s excellent series, much care was taken with the production – from costumes to exterior locations to the marvelous interiors. So many candles! I found myself squinting in sympathy with people who had to live in half-dusk during the day. The costuming, particularly of the less-exalted characters (Cromwell himself, his wife and sister-in-law, the young men of his entourage) is wonderfully accurate, with head coverings abounding and care shown to small details. The courtiers’ costumes are also well done, though I had a few issues with Claire Foy’s gowns – something that tightly laced shouldn’t have those unfortunate wrinkles across the front! But her portrayal of Anne Boleyn made up for any costuming quibbles.

Speaking of performances, Mark Rylance’s Cromwell, is as close to perfect as they come. He’s an actor whose face, while seeming expressionless, can portray a myriad of thoughts – and Cromwell had a myriad of thoughts. Whatever your feelings are about the historical figure of Cromwell, this was a masterful portrayal. Damian Lewis would not have been my first choice for Henry, but while his physical appearance wasn’t quite ideal, he embodied the king’s dangerous volatility to a point where it was almost uncomfortable to watch him.

Mantel published the third and final volume of the series last year; there is another BBC series in the works, though they haven’t confirmed the casting yet. I hope they convince Mark Rylance take up Cromwell once again; I’ll watch it regardless, but no one else will ever quite be Cromwell to me after this.

All this to say that Wolf Hall is an accurate portrayal of the period, especially since Tudor dramas have been known to go quite over-the-top (Showtime’s Tudors, anyone? I think Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is as pretty as they come, but he’s no Henry Tudor. And don’t get me started on the costumes!)

The main point of contention regarding Wolf Hall (books or series) is whether or not you agree with Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell. He’s been the villain of this period of history for so long that it’s unnerving to see him humanized, even if he is still doing the occasional villainous deed. If he didn’t, someone else would – Henry would have his way, come hell or high water, and we all know that to be the one true fact of any stretch of Tudor history.


Find Karen’s books here.

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