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.