The king’s men come for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) as thick clouds mass on the twilit horizon. The camera follows close, first through the bowels of Wolsey’s opulent estate, York Place, and finally into the cardinal’s dim study, where he awaits this dreadful envoy wrapped in a scarlet cassock. The only other color of note in the opening sequence of “Wolf Hall” is Wolsey’s imposing emerald cross, for the six-part miniseries, now airing on PBS, prefers to pay tribute to the dark magic of its source material. Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and sequel “Bring Up the Bodies,” transform the romance of historical fiction into ruthlessness, the pomp into low politics, and “Wolf Hall” captures the author’s distinctive style from the start.
At Wolsey’s side during this initial exchange is his lawyer and confidant, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), supporter of the English Reformation and, later, close advisor to Henry VIII (Damian Lewis). Played by Rylance with subtle cunning, Cromwell earns the king’s ear before anyone deigns to notice. He’s a Tudor Frank Underwood without the taste for theatrics, a man of humble beginnings, spotty past, and deceptively placid manner. The unlikely protagonist in Mantel’s vision of palace intrigue, he orchestrates the creation of the Church of England, the end of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley), and the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy).
Of course the outlines of this narrative are well known. The genius of “Wolf Hall,” on the page and on screen, is not to revise the tale of Henry’s brutal determination to produce a male heir, but to render its familiar features in bold, fresh strokes, with the authoritative vigor of hammer hitting nail.
Mantel’s novels dispense with the gauzy, retrospective prose common to the genre in favor of gutsy, staccato sentences; she revels in the present tense. “‘So now get up,'” “Wolf Hall” begins:
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now. Blood from the gash on his head—which was his father’s first effort—is trickling across his face.
With such corporeal details, such blustery rhythms, Mantel introduces Cromwell as a young man, and the close third-person lends both novels a sense of the immediate experience throughout. Yet if the efficiency of Mantel’s language suggests a certain ease in slimming down perhaps 1,000 printed pages to six hours of television, it’s the balance of narrative and aesthetic propulsion that allows “Wolf Hall,” adapted by Peter Straughan and directed by Peter Kosminsky, to translate her inventive approach to a new medium.
To wit, while it’s not inaccurate to call the production “sumptuous”—see the indigo, vermillion, and gold of a Latin Bible, traced by a child’s finger—the term is more than a little misleading. The miniseries dresses Cromwell, his ward, Rafe (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and his nephew, Richard (Joss Porter), in mournful black, and much of the action occurs under the cover of darkness, but “Wolf Hall” is never less than light on its feet. The camera strides a half pace behind Cromwell as he massages competing egos, or swings chaotically from one face to another as his wife and daughters fall suddenly victim to the “sweating sickness,” always at pains to suggest the tumult of history for those in its midst. Though “Wolf Hall” never quite musters the formal daring of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” (Cinemax), it nonetheless refuses to reduce the past to a still life, frozen in time by the observing eye.
Indeed, it’s in the quieter moments that the aesthetic of “Wolf Hall” most powerfully suggests Mantel’s keen historical realism, for it’s here, in light refracted through stained glass or the flicker of the last candle in Cromwell’s London home, that the flesh-and-blood urgency of the novels comes through most strongly. In one composition from the first episode, “Three Card Trick,” for instance, set in a long, sunny space at York Place, Cromwell and Wolsey sit far from the camera, framed before a five-paned window. With a sentry positioned along the wall, the image shakes, ever so slightly, while Wolsey explains the king’s desire for a son—as if to suggest that we’re another presence in the room, eavesdropping with the barest heave of breath. “Cromwell, why are you such a person?” the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill) sneers at one point, and it’s this vibrating, deeply human aura that “Wolf Hall” transfers so beautifully to television.
For the key to Cromwell’s influence, as Mantel portrays it, is his unremarkable nature, his lack of extraordinary pedigree or easily identified talents. He’s intelligent and careful, loyal to his allies and unafraid of his enemies, but there’s nothing about the man that screams kingmaker—which is, of course, his most highly developed skill, the one that saves him, for a spell, from Tudor England’s swift reversals of fortune. Rather than snuff out this attention to the high stakes of simply living, “Wolf Hall” embraces it, ensuring that Mantel’s gritty, dynamic treatment of Cromwell’s place and time more than survives the adaptation. “Oh, no mind who that is,” Wolsey says of Cromwell to Anne’s father, Thomas (David Robb). “He’s nobody.”
“Wolf Hall” airs Sundays at 10pm on PBS.