Wolf Hall: a look at Thomas Cromwell on screen

Set in the period between 1500 and 1535, the BBC dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies traces the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Here, historian Tracy Borman looks at four of the most famous screen portrayals of Henry’s trusted adviser, and decides which comes closest to reality

A Man For All Seasons (1966) Leo McKern (right) as Cromwell © INTERFOTO / Alamy

The phenomenon of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels based upon the life of Henry VIII’s henchman, Thomas Cromwell, shows no signs of abating. Her portrayal of Cromwell (traditionally one of history’s greatest villains) so fired the public imagination that scriptwriters scrambled to translate it to stage and screen. The RSC’s production, starring Ben Miles, attracted sell-out crowds in Stratford and London, and has now transferred to Broadway. Now it is the BBC’s turn, with a lavish six-part dramatisation starring Mark Rylance in the lead role, and Damian Lewis as his royal master.

Mantel’s portrayal turned our idea of Cromwell on its head. No longer the one-dimensional Machiavellian schemer who masterminded Anne Boleyn’s fall, destroyed the monasteries and lined his own pockets in the process: he was now a tender husband and father, charming and self-deprecating, a self-made man and – as Mantel put it – “clever as a bag of snakes”. We can expect the BBC dramatisation to give us a Cromwell every bit as sympathetic as this. As such, it will form a dramatic contrast to most other screen portrayals of Henry’s chief minister through the ages…

 

1) A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Every film needs a hero and a villain, and in most screen portrayals of Henry VIII’s reign, Sir Thomas More and Cromwell adopt these roles. Diametrically opposed on everything, from the king’s divorce to the Reformation, these two arch-enemies provide ideal fodder for film makers. But until Wolf Hall, it was patently clear who the hero really was.

The villainous Cromwell here is played by Leo McKern (later famous for playing the title role in TV’s Rumpole of the Bailey). It is not such a one-dimensional portrayal as others, however.  McKern’s Cromwell may be an untrustworthy schemer, but he has humanity, humour and warmth. He also brings out Cromwell’s formidable intelligence, as well as a certain amount of chubby uncouthness to represent his humble origins.

But overall – and particularly as the film makes it way towards its climax – McKern’s Cromwell is undoubtedly the embodiment of evil. He preys upon the weakness of Richard Rich in an almost diabolical manner in order to secure the condemnation of the saintly Thomas More, played by Paul Schofield.  The audience is left in no doubt who they should be rooting for.

 

2) Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

A more extreme version of Cromwell the villain is found in Anne of the Thousand Days. Here, Thomas Cromwell is played by John Colicos (more famous for playing the Klingon commander Kor in Star Trek) in a manner more chilling in its depiction of the king’s minister than any other.
Described in the film as “entirely without scruple”, Colicos uses a monotone voice and piercing eyes to portray Cromwell as almost devoid of any humanity whatsoever. This is seen most vividly in his cool indifference to the torture of Mark Smeaton, whom he frames for adultery with Anne Boleyn.

In fact, the only point where any sense of humanity is allowed to emerge in Colicos’ Cromwell is when, having suggested the break with Rome to Richard Burton’s Henry VIII, he retreats through a doorway to breathe a huge sigh of relief at the apparent success of this risk.

 

3) Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)

Yet another Cromwell appears in Henry VIII and His Six Wives. Cromwell is played by Donald Pleasence (later to play the Bond villain Blofeld in You Only Live Twice), alongside Keith Michell’s celebrated Henry. In contrast to the choleric McKern and the icy Colicos, Pleasence’s Cromwell is more weasel-like, mumbling through a nasal voice and insincere smile in his constant efforts to ingratiate himself with the king.

Unlike Anne of the Thousand Days and A Man for All Seasons, Henry VIII and His Six Wives continues long enough to depict Cromwell’s alienation of the nobility and his resulting arrest as he is led away from the council in dazed indignation at the sudden accusation of treason.
Odd,  and somewhat too quirky to be convincing, Pleasence’s Cromwell has the virtue of portraying the over-confidence that preceded the minister’s dramatic fall and his failure to anticipate the fickle indifference of the king to his fate. 

 

4) The Tudors (2007–10)

While much of the credit for Cromwell’s rehabilitation in recent times is given to the novels of Hilary Mantel, the major revision in terms of the screen actually preceded Wolf Hall. James Frain’s portrayal of Cromwell in The Tudors gave us an altogether more rounded and human figure.

One of the key factors here was the much longer running time of the lavish production, which appeared to liberate it from the need to provide the more one-dimensional hero versus villain portrayals of shorter films. Rather than being depicted in sharp, unflattering contrast to the Thomas More of Jeremy Northam, Frain’s Cromwell is allowed to possess a conscience and very obvious convictions alongside being extremely clever and hard working.

Examples of this are the distaste that he shows during the torture of Mark Smeaton; the affection for his son Gregory, and the genuine Protestant convictions that shaped much of his service to the king. But this is no whitewash: Cromwell’s ruthlessness is displayed alongside the high handedness towards the nobility that later proved his undoing.

Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the entire four seasons of The Tudors is its depiction of the gruesome execution of Cromwell in 1540. Even if some of the details of this are largely imaginary, such as the executioner being plied with drink so that he botches Cromwell’s beheading, it is a very effective portrayal of the hatred felt for him by his opponents.

So which of these portrayals comes closest to the real Cromwell? In researching his extraordinary life for my recent biography, I discovered a character at once warm, affectionate and humorous, but one who did not flinch from acts of astonishing ruthlessness and cruelty. In truth, Cromwell defies typecasting, and instead combines elements of all four portrayals.
But if that is too much like sitting on the fence, then I would plump for the possibly controversial choice of James Frain’s portrayal. It may not be fashionable among the history fraternity to say anything positive about The Tudors, but on Cromwell, at least, the production has done its homework. 

Tracy Borman’s Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant was published by Hodder & Stoughton in September 2014. It will be released in paperback on 29 January. To find out more, click here.

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