With Wolf Hall, PBS Finds a Drama Worthy of the Word Masterpiece

The adaptation of Hilary Mantel's 2009 novel is a tour de force, from its magnificent cast to its fascinating analysis of politics and power.

When it comes to PBS, the word “Masterpiece” is used rather liberally these days (I’m looking at you, Downton). But of all the myriad British exports to have been aired by the anthology series in recent years, Wolf Hall is one that truly earns the adjective. The six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, debuting Sunday at 10 p.m., is magnificent—the kind of achingly grand BBC drama that gathers every estimable actor within a hundred-mile radius and has them portray a story so intricate and ambitious and tragic that it could only come from history itself. “A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand, and the unguessed-at expression of his face,” writes Mantel in the book. There are no smarmy Frank Underwood asides or preposterous Sorkinian soliloquies here. Rather, the adaptation looks at a quieter, more authoritative manipulation of power, via a hero so inscrutable that most of the pleasure in watching him comes from having no idea whatsoever what he might be thinking, or what he might do next.
That hero is Thomas Cromwell, played here by Mark Rylance, who could do nothing else for the rest of his career and have this series enshrine him permanently as the best actor of his generation. Both the first book and this adaptation (a sequel to Mantel's book was released in 2012, and a third is in the works) follow Cromwell’s unlikely ascendance from being the abused son of an alcoholic blacksmith to becoming one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted advisers, overseeing the English Reformation, in which the country asserted its independence from the authority of Rome and the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the first episode, Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) is unhappily married to Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley), while conducting a semi-chaste affair with Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) has been unable to secure the King an annulment, leading to his fall from grace and subsequent exile, presided over by a trio of scheming aristocrats: the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), the Duke of Suffolk (Richard Dillane), and Thomas Boleyn (David Robb), Anne’s father.
The stakes in Tudor England were often remarkably simple, with death more of an imminent inevitability than a faraway, abstract concern. “If I’m not there to speak for the Cardinal,” Cromwell says to a confidant at one point, “they’ll kill him.” A sweating sickness decimates much of the population in the first episode. All the while, the king struts and frets like a 16th-century Vladimir Putin, eliminating those who fall out of favor and leaving little room for dialogue. Henry is not, as becomes immediately apparent, accustomed to hearing the word no, which is why the intractability of the Catholic Church makes it yet another enemy that needs to be disposed of, and Anne's refusal to surrender her virtue leaves the king so adamant he’s going to marry her. It’s also, the show suggests, why Cromwell becomes so intriguing to him. “You want a king to huddle indoors like a sick girl?” Henry asks, enraged by Cromwell’s resistance to invading France (at times, the dialogue does bear more than a hint of Monty Python). “A strong man acts within that which constrains him,” Cromwell replies, sphinx-like as ever in his utter fearlessness.
Historical dramas can often feel rote, and uninspired—just look at Downton Abbey’s half-hearted attempts to reference that nasty Mr. Hitler, or any other early 20th-century moments of import. The blessing of Wolf Hall, adapted by Peter Straughan and directed by Peter Kosminsky, is that the era it digests was fixated with power. It’s as much an analysis of politics as contemporary shows like House of Cards and Veep are, and Cromwell is shown to be a master manipulator, silencing a dinner party and embarrassing a French ambassador (Mathieu Amalric) before carelessly remarking, to no one in particular, “You must give me the recipe for this sauce.” Like any antihero worth watching, he has a tragic backstory. At one moment, the camera lingers on a bloodstain on the cobblestones, suggesting it’s the residue from a brutal beating he took as a child, but he’s nevertheless a loving and patient father, encouraging his daughters to learn Greek and Latin, and telling one that she can marry whom she wants, “within reason.”
The historical accuracy of Mantel’s story might be a matter of dispute, but no one can argue that it makes for infinitely compelling drama. That in itself might be enough for a successful adaptation, but Kosmisky adds layers upon layers of visual and aural depth. As Cromwell stalks the hallways of Esher Place (once Wolsey’s residence, now commandeered so Anne can have a London address), he’s accompanied by the sounds of strings and flutes, sometimes for dramatic effect, and sometimes because he encounters a lute player entertaining Lady Anne. The sets are also immaculately conceived, from the tapestries at court to the manicured gardens in which Cromwell and Henry finally meet. The attention to detail is lavish, to say the least, but not mindlessly prepossessing—ugliness and puritanical simplicity are as important to the storytelling as each individual jewel attached to Anne’s neckline.
Playing possibly the most famous second wife in history, Foy is pleasingly uppity, pronouncing Cromwell’s name as “Cremuel” with an affected French accent, and uttering strings of invective in that language when frustrated. The cast is bolstered by the familiar faces of Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Love Actually) as Cromwell’s ward, Ralph, and Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) as Stephen Gardiner, the king’s secretary. Lewis treads a steady line between psychotic despot and charismatic monarch as Henry, but even he pales in comparison to Rylance, whose Cromwell would be hypnotic viewing if he were doing street theater in overalls, let alone acting amid some of the most fantastically realized locations  in period-drama memory.
“The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms,” Mantel writes. “Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase.” It’s to the credit of everyone involved in the production of Wolf Hall that such unglamorous examples of power being wielded make for such rewarding television.