I consumed all six hours of Wolf Hall so hungrily and happily, when I was done, I could easily have wolfed down six more. Based on two bestselling, award-winning novels by Hilary Mantel (more on those in a bit), Wolf Hall makes for wonderful television in part by resisting the current trends in wonderful television.
Unlike everything from Game of Thrones to Downton Abbey, Wolf Hall isn’t concerned in building grand worlds and then asking the viewer to experience the grit or the glamour of them. The exciting drama of this new PBS British import emanates almost entirely from two small areas: intricate dialogue spoken through murmuring mouths, and the darting eyes of star Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, who’s presented here as a master manipulator worthy of admiration.
At least, that’s how Mantel conceives the 16th century royal court advisor to be perceived. Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) were written as novel correctives to the way British history has been written — and inevitably represented in pop culture. This is British history as seen through the thoughts and actions of a commoner who rose to power, and thus it’s a narrative trajectory that is particularly familiar and appealing to an American audience: the man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps (in Cromwell’s case, the battered son of a coarse blacksmith) to become someone working at the highest levels of influence.
Rylance, best known in England as a stage actor, does a remarkable job of conveying Cromwell’s methods of influencing government policy, flattering King Henry VIII without seeming to toady, disposing of his inner-court rivals and enemies by out-thinking them rather than lopping off their heads — and, with the help of screenwriter Peter Straughan, does all this in a dramatic manner in which battles are won with artful arguments and subtle put-downs.
Rylance’s Cromwell communicates everything with a poker face and downcast, basset-hound eyes. (It’s no spoiler to say that the entire six-hour series ends with a close-up of those eyes.) Cromwell is as thoroughly underestimated an anti-hero as early-period Walter White in Breaking Bad. And like Walter White, he’s a Mr. Chips-y scholar (a lawyer, in this case) who becomes Scarface (that is, a man who gathers power through relentless ambition).
For any viewer with a sense of movie history, Wolf Hall offers a fascinating alternate-universe of fact-based personalities. Instead of the noble Thomas More of A Man for All Seasons (a 1966 Oscar winner for actor Paul Scofield), or the rotund, chicken-fat-flecked king embodied by Charles Laughton in 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, Wolf gives us a petty, self-aggrandizing More (played by Anton Lesser) and a lean, mercurial, priapic Henry as portrayed by Damian Lewis (Homeland).
But don’t worry if you don’t know Henry from More — I’d read numerous Mantel books (I highly recommend her memoir Giving Up the Ghost), but not these two source novels. Nevertheless, this Wolf Hall, directed by Peter Kominsky in the gloom of dim period candlelight, is a bright-minded jog through history, bursting with extravagant emotions held taut by hard-headed scheming and witty ripostes. It’s every bit as good as Downton Abbey, and when it comes to moody shrewdness, Wolf has it all over Mad Men. Thomas Cromwell could eat Don Draper for breakfast, and be hungry for Roger Sterling by lunch.
Wolf Hall airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on PBS Masterpiece.