Thomas Cromwell’s Sphincter
by ALEX CARNEVALE
creators Mark Pybus & Peter Straughan
I read George Weigel’s essay about the series adapting Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall before I ever saw the show. Outside of Garry Wills, Weigel is the most amusing Catholic writer out there. It’s amazing how much he loathes Wolf Hall and its creator, considering how little is at stake here. He has to admit the BBC adaptation is fantastic television: Mark Rylance’s performance of Thomas Cromwell as a heatseeking missile, a British Tony Soprano, is an exultation.
What he objects to is the slander of his man Sir Thomas More, the Catholic saint who was so incensed by the concept of adultery in general that he refused to endorse the marriage of King Henry (Homeland‘s Damian Lewis) to Anne Boleyn (a magnificent Claire Foy). In contrast, Cromwell is painted as a shrewd, amoral politician to Sir Thomas More’s pious martyr.
In reality, the show does Cromwell far less favors than the novel. I have a friend who is Mantel’s number one detractor. Once she wrote to me after I had praised Mantel’s 1992 novel about the French revolution A Place of Greater Safety, saying that I should probably focus on reading books by someone who can write. The novel Wolf Hall, written in a distracting present tense, has many problems related to Mantel’s inadequacies, but it succeeds on its sheer enthusiasm for the subject, a pure expression that is something like faith.
Catholics hate this kind of certainty in non-Catholics, since it is something like using their own weapons against them. In Weigel’s entertaining screed against Mantel, he misspells her name several times, so strenuously does he object to her distortion of history. He cannot object to this BBC presentation, however: Peter Straughan’s note perfect teleplay of Wolf Hall (and its darker 2012 sequel Bringing Up the Bodies) distills Mantel’s long, messy novels down to their bare essentials. He turns them into a captivating, exciting drama centered around Rylance as Thomas Cromwell.
“[Wolf Hall] proves, yet again, that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable bigotry in elite circles in the Anglosphere,” writes Weigel. Catholics are very sensitive about attacks on their saints. Yet the irony is that the BBC does portray More very negatively at all. Like Cromwell, he has skeletons in his closet: when he advised the throne, he burned his Protestant foes at the stake and destroyed their manuscripts whenever he could. His own religious convictions and devotion to papal authority make him a good Catholic, but, Mantel is saying, it does not make him a good man.
Neither does it make Thomas Cromwell one. King Henry VIII, at one point, explains to Cromwell why he has made him his chief operator. “It’s not because of your conversation skills,” he tells the older man. “It’s because you’re a serpent.” Cromwell seems, in Wolf Hall, to inherit one key distinguishing trait from his mentor Cardinal Wolsey: he inserts himself in everything, even the King’s bad dreams.
As Henry, Damian Lewis takes on the thankless role of a syphilitic king whose justice seems at times arbitrary and at times well served. Lewis is a wonderfully understated performer, but sometimes he seems too much a part of the goofy entourage that surrounds the crown.
The scenes Rylance and Lewis have together are purposefully awkward and silly. Besides the rare romantic encounter, it is the only time Cromwell ever touches another person, albeit awkwardly. This Cromwell prefers to manipulate Henry by indirect means; usually through the women that surround him and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Mounting a world-changing struggle to take up with a gorgeous younger woman seems reasonable in Wolf Hall. The show makes a point of emphasizing how much even Cromwell himself desires Anne. At first, Boleyn’s impulsiveness and unpredictability only add to her charm. That some Englishman would change the entire religious structure of his country for her seems not all that farfetched, and Mantel seems to suggest it would have happened anyway — that England would have had to break from the Church with or without these terrible people.
This perspective gets Wolf Hall in trouble with George Weigel. lt seems astonishing that he could still be fighting the Protestant Reformation even now, but for Weigel being a Catholic critic comes with a built-in persecution complex and an inborn dislike of Lutherans. Criticism of a religion can never be held in the same breath as bigotry or racism. That does not mean the world is always fair to Catholics, but there is something sacred about to whom we are born — the faith we uphold is our choice.
Weigel argues that the real Cromwell is a monster of statecraft who tortured and abused England’s citizens on behalf of Henry VIII. Simon Schama protests that his own sources “shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture.”
Mantel makes Cromwell anathema to violence except as last resort, and less culpable in Henry’s machinations. He is as much a victim of circumstances as Sir Thomas More (Game of Thrones‘ Anton Lesser). It is a fine point, since no matter how softened of an asshole Thomas Cromwell is, his basic dirty acts are still present in Wolf Hall. Weigel’s upset, then, is because Mantel has suggested these villainous deeds were necessary.
We think of the Reformation as an event of the distant past. Wolf Hall awakens these old wounds: few faiths have endured as much in the way of internecine struggles as Christianity. For Mantel, Christ himself is besides the point; like history, he is the ultimate elastic concept. This is the basic attitude that drives a good Catholic like the brilliant Mr. Weigel mad. Cromwell believed in tolerance except when it came to attacks on the state: this kind of thinking is much more in line with modernity. Sir Thomas More was not a man for all seasons.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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