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Review: Wolf Hall Gives Us an Antihero for All Seasons

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It’s a Tudor Revival: within days of each other, the BBC TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, set in the court of Henry VIII, premieres on PBS (April 5) and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage version opens on Broadway (April 9). I’ve seen both, and my print story in this week’s TIME (subscription required) looks at their captivating retelling of a familiar story.

The story of how the king threw over Catherine of Aragon (and the Catholic Church) to wed then behead Anne Boleyn has been told and retold, from Shakespeare to A Man for All Seasons to Showtime’s The Tudors, with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ swaggering rock star Henry. (The miniseries also opts for a hot Henry over the turkey-leg chewing behemoth of popular imagination, with Damien Lewis as the king.) What distinguishes Wolf Hall is that the protagonist is neither the king nor any of his series of queens but Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer, financial wizard and all-around political fixer Henry relied on to rewrite laws, break church ties and destroy enemies.

As Mantel painted him, Cromwell is a classic 21st-century TV antihero 500 years before his time: both ruthless and thoughtful, conniving yet loyal, he’s a little Frank Underwood, a little Olivia Pope, a little Littlefinger. And, as I write in the piece, he comes to embody some provocative ideas about the times he lived in:

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.

I’m guessing you’re more likely to see the PBS broadcast, and I recommend it heartily: Mark Rylance is spectacular as Cromwell, bringing subtlety and melancholy to a man who was more of a bulldog in real life (as Hans Holbein the Younger painted him), but conveying the terrifying efficiency of his mind all the same. (The stage version, which I saw in previews, is a more spare adapation, with broader performances, but it also captures the tone set by Mantel, who consulted closely on it.)

My headline for the print article is “Game of Thrones,” because Thrones references are what we do nowadays. But in seriousness the six-part Wolf Hall makes a good viewing companion to HBO’s series (which returns a week later). Both are realpolitik stories beneath the lush, sexy trappings of royal desires and ambitions.

Though I don’t think it’s a spoiler to point out the historical fact of what Anne Boleyn notoriously discovered: in this game of thrones, sometimes you win and you die.

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