TV Review: ‘Wolf Hall’

Wolf Hall PBS TV Review
Courtesy of PBS

Anchored by Mark Rylance’s towering central performance, “Wolf Hall” is a very quiet “Masterpiece,” visiting the court of King Henry VIII minus the perfume and airbrushing associated with something like “The Tudors.” Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels, this six-hour project boasts an insanely good cast, while moving at such a methodical pace as to almost obscure all the treachery and politicking at work. Although there has been no shortage of productions devoted to this period, aficionados will doubtless relish another escape into the 16th century, this time peering over the shoulder of Rylance’s cool and calculating adviser Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell is introduced as an aide to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), who describes him as “a man of many talents.” That he is, but one of them, unfortunately for him, is a fierce sense of loyalty, which becomes problematic when the cardinal opposes the machinations intended to secure a divorce for King Henry (Damian Lewis) from his first wife, Katherine (Joanne Whalley), in order to marry the manipulative Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy).

Based on his association with Wolsey, his chief lieutenant would appear to be in danger as well. Yet after suffering a devastating personal loss, Cromwell — born into modest means as a blacksmith’s son — manages to gain the king’s ear, though even he must tread lightly around the mercurial monarch, whose obsession with producing a male heir dictates both Anne’s rise and eventual fall.

“Everything you are, everything you have, will come from me,” Henry tells him, somewhat ominously.

Along the way, Cromwell gradually proves himself not only a survivor but also someone with whom foes trifle at their own peril. When a friend mentions that God should punish those who have wronged the Cardinal, Cromwell dryly suggests that instead of troubling the Almighty, just leave the job to him.

Overflowing with fine British actors even in modest roles, “Wolf Hall” contains a number of smaller subplots surrounding the king’s challenge to the Church, among them Cromwell’s intriguing relationships with both Anne and her sister Mary (Charity Wakefield), with whom Henry also dallied before moving on.

Yet as good as the cast is (and Foy is particularly splendid), Rylance — a noted stage actor whose screen credits include playing Anne’s father in “The Other Boleyn Girl” — simply dominates the proceedings. Quietly handling crises whilst trying to talk sense to the king, he seldom raises his voice above a hoarse whisper.

Much of the character’s emotion, in fact, is conveyed in silence, as events leave Cromwell, for all his influence, sporting a look of weary resignation. Indeed, one particularly terrific scene is played without dialogue, as Cromwell watches Henry’s attention drift from Anne to Jane Seymour, his future bride.

Cromwell’s path regularly crosses that of celebrated historical figures who have inspired books, movies and plays of their own, among them the ill-fated Thomas More (Anton Lesser). As for Lewis’ Henry, he actually disappears for long stretches, but the mere prospect of his wrath casts a very long shadow.

Cromwell’s mysterious background — illuminated only sparingly through flashbacks — makes him enigmatic in a way that confounds and irritates those seeking to undermine his authority. Then again, he keeps his own counsel while navigating a maze of those who are largely transparent in their thirst for position and power.

PBS describes the project as “unromanticized,” which certainly applies to the look and design, which provide a lavish view of royal life while capturing the dankness and brutality of the times. This is the sort of project that requires attention and focus from viewers, which includes keeping track of the time lapses that occur between each of the chapters.

Adapted by Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and directed by Peter Kosminsky (“White Oleander”), “Wolf Hall” encompasses the first two books in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, and its tone and texture feel rougher around the edges than some of “Masterpiece’s” other period dramas; still, by the time it’s over, viewers should be both emotionally spent and champing at the bit for another trip back to witness the final leg of Cromwell’s story.

Once virtually the exclusive U.S. province for this sort of classy British fare — which has become a major contributor to the current abundance of topnotch television drama — PBS now faces extensive competition from the likes of BBC America, SundanceTV, Netflix, Starz and others.

Despite the high that the service has enjoyed, thanks to “Downton Abbey,” from that perspective presenting “Wolf Hall” feels like something of a coup, offering a reminder that unlike the oft-wedded Henry, the marriage “Masterpiece” and British costume dramas remains one of those enduring matches made in TV heaven.

TV Review: 'Wolf Hall'

(Miniseries; PBS, Sun. April 5, 10 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in the U.K. by Playground Entertainment and Company Pictures for BBC and Masterpiece in association with BBC Worldwide, Altus Media and Prescience.

Crew

Executive producers, Colin Callendar, John Yorke, Polly Hill, Martin Rakusen, Ben Donald, Tim Smith, Rebecca Eaton; producer, Mark Pybus; director, Peter Kosminsky; writer, Peter Straughan; based on the novels by Hilary Mantel; camera, Gavin Finney; production designer, Pat Campbell; editor, David Blackmore; music, Debbie Wiseman; casting, Nina Gold, Robert Sterne. 6 HOURS

Cast

Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Claire Foy, Bernard Hill, Anton Lesser, Mark Gatiss, Joanne Whalley, Jonathan Pryce, Mathieu Amalric, Charity Wakefield, Richard Dillane, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Natasha Little, Saskia Reeves

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  1. In one of the episodes that includes Jane Seymore, the lines have her say “fit the bill”. It relates to her finding a suitable prayer in her prayer book. That expression stands out as ridiculous. It is a mid-nineteenth century saying. The play is about the sixteenth century. Should have been edited out. Jane Seymore would not be saying “finding something that will fit the bill”.
    Otherwise, I found it an excellent watch.

  2. Lynn Taylor says:

    Wolf Hall and Mark Rylance are mesmerizing! The novel slow movement is thought-provoking and so refreshing in a culture that doesn’t seem to understand anything not madly rushing to and fro! And drama is spirit and art, not footnoted history. These two commenters have totally missed the point!

  3. Tom Walker says:

    Wolf Hall is a disaster…Rylance is terrible…and the whole production suffers from beginning to end. Worst PBS decision ever.

  4. Pat says:

    This is a piece that is called, rightly,” up market anti-Catholicism. It is not true to history and engages in some of the propaganda that allowed some of these characters to stay on the throne.

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