Wolf Hall, the latest BBC Two and Masterpiece co-production, is a six-episode adaptation of Hilary Mantel‘s Tudor-set novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The Tudor court of England’s Henry VIII (played by Damian Lewis) has certainly been explored through fiction in many forms, but the real takeaway from Wolf Hall is not in regards to its portrayal of Henry or the machinations of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), but in the fact that Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) was a totally badass.
At least, as Mantel tells it. Wolf Hall is Rylance’s showcase, as he exudes a quiet power and certainty when it comes to his wit, his talents, and his loyalty. Everything about Wolf Hall thrives on understatement, not only from its actors, but in its very filmmaking. Director Peter Kosminsky (who directed all six parts) allows settings to be illuminated by natural light, which often means actors are stumbling around in the dark. It gives the series a wonderfully pristine atmosphere.
Peter Straughan‘s script also finds a surprising amount of humor, even though most of it is staid, particularly from Cromwell. There’s no use in quoting any of Cromwell’s quips, though, because without the visual context and Rylance’s mastery of the material, they are meaningless.
Wolf Hall is perhaps by definition a slow burn — plots, which jump back and forth in time, primarily revolve around hushed conversations and the formation of wary alliances. Henry himself doesn’t even show up until late in the first hour, and doesn’t speak until its second. But part of Wolf Hall‘s beauty is in how its largely a story about the “B” players, with the larger happenings in court being relayed through hallway whispers and occasionally hilarious speculation.
Yet even in its quietest interactions, Wolf Hall feels dynamic. Cromwell comes on the scene after Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley), but before he was ready to divorce her for Lady Anne. He becomes a trusted friend of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), who has been entrusted with securing an annulment from the Pope, but is unable, raising Henry’s ire.
All of this plays out alongside cautious talk of Reformation, with the names of Luther and Tyndale publicly dragged through the mud (though secretly, some priests exposed to Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament are readying themselves to be called heretics, as they seek to break with Rome). Cromwell is a part of all of these things, and Wolf Hall follows his rise to power in Henry’s court, even after Wolsey is unfairly disgraced. Cromwell’s ability to persevere — his violent upbringing is broached, along with many personal tragedies — makes him uniquely positioned to help guide Henry through some of the most difficult times for his court and for England.
Elegant writing, coupled with a naturalistic storytelling, and the actors’ comfortable feel for the material brings the world of Wolf Hall to life. The score, much of it from the period, is minimalistic (in fact, just about everything is), but there are great triumphs — and occasionally great guffaws — to be found in the series’ smallest moments. And for those with a shaky historical foundation for the politics of 16th century England (besides “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” anyway), many of the turns and revelations of Cromwell’s life and Tudor politics are riveting to watch unfold.
Still, Wolf Hall is not for everyone. The tone is quiet, the pace is slow, and the machinations of medieval politics are not a universal interest. But Wolf Hall is consistent, so its first episode sets the stage for how the rest of the series unfolds. For those who will become fans, though, Straughan and Kosminsky have done something special with Mantel’s material, but it wouldn’t be possible without Rylance. Here, the character of Cromwell is a legend in the making. And the show’s finesse doesn’t leave it too far behind.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material
Wolf Hall premieres on PBS’s Masterpiece at 10 p.m. on Sunday, April 5th.