Thomas Cromwell is a textbook 21st century antihero. Like House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, he’s a political operator who plays the levers of power like the keys of a pipe organ. Like Scandal’s Olivia Pope, he’s a fixer to the powerful who can be both deeply loyal and efficiently ruthless. Like Mad Men’s Don Draper, he’s a successful man with a cloudy past, haunted by his low-caste origins even as he mingles with the elite. In short, he’s a protagonist very much of our moment. His own moment simply happens to have come five centuries ago.
Cromwell’s revival began when novelist Hilary Mantel elevated Henry VIII’s lawyer and consigliere from a historical footnote to the star of her intricate political tapestries Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which won the Booker Prize in 2009 and 2012 respectively. The novels, which combined meticulous period detail with contemporary psychological acuity, spotlighted Cromwell as the guy behind the guy in a familiar story: the King of England, randy, entitled and desperate for a male heir, throws aside his wife for the younger Anne Boleyn, only to have her beheaded. All that serial matrimony involved a lot of moving parts–writing laws, crushing rivals, severing England from the Catholic Church–and Cromwell, polymath, ambitious and fearsome, was Henry’s mechanic.
In the 16th century, the mark of success was portraiture. (Cromwell was captured by Hans Holbein the Younger in a painting that hangs in New York City’s Frick museum.) Today, it’s adaptation. In 2014, the Royal Shakespeare Company sold out houses in London with a two-part, six-hour stage version of both books, which opens April 9 on Broadway as Wolf Hall Parts One and Two. And days before that, Cromwell joins TV’s burgeoning portrait gallery of morally gray hero-villains in the BBC’s six-part Wolf Hall (PBS, beginning April 5).
The timing of this Tudor revival is curious, as if Star Wars were being rebooted simultaneously by J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, but largely coincidental. (Mantel has given her blessing to and consulted on both adaptations, though she is more closely involved with the RSC production.) But then, codpieces and beheadings never really go out of style. From 2007 to 2010, Showtime’s soapy The Tudors gave us Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a young, swaggering Hank the Hunk. The 2008 movie The Other Boleyn Girl (based on the 2001 Philippa Gregory novel) portrayed the story from the opposite side, with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson as sister-rivals Anne and Mary Boleyn.
What makes Mantel’s Henry-and-Anne story distinctive is that it’s not mainly Henry and Anne’s story but Cromwell’s. The royals are like natural forces he has to contend with; he tortures laws and noblemen alike to ensure that his employer gets his desire without destroying England. And the rich, insightful miniseries proves that this kind of scenario–lust, greed and ambition against a complex social backdrop–is a perfect story for TV.
Cromwell (Mark Rylance), born the son of an abusive Putney blacksmith, fled to fight in the French army and got a Continental education in trade, the law and the power of knowing where money flows and hides. In a world of heredity, he rises through hustle, hitching himself as an adviser to the powerful Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce)–whom he impresses with a three-card-monte trick he learned as a boy on the docks.
Wolsey eventually falls, after failing to procure Henry (Homeland’s Damian Lewis) an annulment from the Pope. But Cromwell impresses the King, who hires him as counselor/enforcer to break the legal and political eggs required to get him the seductive, savvy Anne (Claire Foy). This sets Cromwell darting about the chessboard of history, tangling with the sanctimonious Catholic loyalist Thomas More (Anton Lesser); the current Queen, Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley); and above all, Anne, savvy and vindictive but used for years as a bargaining chip by her mafiaesque family.
Like the cheerier British import Downton Abbey, Wolf Hall is, under its gilded surface, a story about change: ideological and technological shifts most of the characters are only vaguely aware are coming. Cromwell is modernity in a black hat, a commoner who rose to unprecedented levels and understands that the locus of power has moved. The printing press is the Internet of its time, a disrupting force. Cromwell is active in the movement to distribute an English Bible, forbidden by the church, which is terrified of the little people reading (and interpreting) it for themselves. Commerce is becoming global, hierarchies are falling, which means trouble–and opportunity.
For blacksmith’s boy Cromwell, seeking to secure his family after losing a wife and two daughters to “sweating sickness,” knowledge is power–and he wields it as brutally as Breaking Bad’s Walter White. “The world is not run from where you think it is,” he says, as he threatens a rival of Henry’s not with the rack but with financial ruin. “The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon, from wherever the merchant ships sail off into the West. Not from castle walls. From counting houses.”
It’s a chilling threat, yet Rylance delivers it pensively, with resignation. Though best known as a stage actor, he has modulated Cromwell terrifically for the cool medium of TV. In the novels (and the real-life Holbein portrait), Cromwell is a bulldog of a man, beefy and intimidating. Rylance, lanky and craggy-faced, plays Cromwell not as a cudgel but as a shiv.
The contrast between his reserve and Lewis’ cocky sexual energy plays up the difference between the pragmatic commoner and the impetuous King, too privileged to know caution. Early on, they argue over Henry’s dream of invading France. (Again the King risks disaster by inserting himself in forbidden territory.) “Do you want the King to huddle indoors like a sick girl?” Henry demands. “That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes,” Cromwell answers coolly.
At the same time, the six hours (adapted by Peter Straughan and directed by Peter Kosminsky) nimbly take in the sweep of court and politics: the complex machinations with France and the Holy Roman Empire, the class anxieties of the nobles who look down on Cromwell yet fear him, the way women are traded like currency and despised for it. Henry’s former mistress Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) forms a flirtatious alliance with Cromwell and is one of the few characters able to keep pace with him mentally.
The miniseries inevitably loses something of Mantel’s novels, which are richly interior and filled with dreamlike detail. So does the theater adaptation by Mike Poulton (with Mantel’s guidance), but it’s replaced that with spare, effective staging and a streamlined script. Ben Miles’ Cromwell is stormier and more pugilistic than Rylance’s, befitting the medium. (And maybe reflecting Miles’ athletic task: he’s onstage nearly every second of the play’s six hours.)
The play’s two parts correspond more or less directly with Mantel’s two books. The first tracks Cromwell’s rise as Henry (Nathaniel Parker, playing the King as a bluff frat boy) courts and weds Anne (Lydia Leonard); the second shows Cromwell undoing the work he did in the first, as he’s charged with having the new Queen convicted of adultery and treason and finally beheaded. The two parts make a kind of moral symmetry; Cromwell’s idealism and optimism in the first curdle into cynicism and hypocrisy in the second as he turns inquisitor. You see his lively mind become a blunt nutcracker; you see him, in TV parlance, breaking bad.
It’s not the end of the story. Mantel is working on The Mirror and the Light, the last in her Cromwell trilogy. But these two adaptations make a strong advertisement for that final third. Mantel and now her collaborators have made their central Renaissance man an antihero for our time: a compromised, fascinating striver who kept his head–for a while–while seeing that many about him lost theirs.
This appears in the April 13, 2015 issue of TIME.