If you’ve got even a passing familiarity with British history — and if you’re reading this in the U.S., okay, maybe you don’t — you know how “Wolf Hall,” the six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels turns out. But to paraphrase “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm, drama is less about whether you end up in Topeka than how you get there. Wikipedia, or even a nursery rhyme, can spoil its plot, but not Mantel’s vivid evocation of King Henry VIII’s court, or how it plays out from the perspective of Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell. The series, which begins its PBS run on Sunday, has already aired in the U.K. to near-unanimous acclaim (and a smattering of controversy), and American critics are following suit, lavishing particular praise on Mark Rylance’s performance as Cromwell, and saving a little for Damien Lewis’ Henry. As the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan points out in her review, it’s a brutally busy time for TV, especially on Sunday nights, with “Mad Men” returning this week and “Game of Thrones” the next, but “Wolf Hall” is worth making time for, or at least DVRing for a less crowded night.
“Wolf Hall” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on most PBS stations.
Reviews of “Wolf Hall”
James Poniewozik, Time
Like the cheerier British import “Downton Abbey,” “Wolf Hall” is, under its gilded surface, a story about change: ideological and technological shifts most of the characters are only vaguely aware are coming. Cromwell is modernity in a black hat, a commoner who rose to unprecedented levels and understands that the locus of power has moved. The printing press is the Internet of its time, a disrupting force. Cromwell is active in the movement to distribute an English Bible, forbidden by the church, which is terrified of the little people reading (and interpreting) it for themselves. Commerce is becoming global, hierarchies are falling, which means trouble — and opportunity.
Zack Handlen, A.V. Club
“Wolf Hall’s” efforts to capture the same mood as its source material ultimately serve it well. Anyone with a passing knowledge of history (or access to Wikipedia) will already know the eventual fates of Boleyn, Cromwell, and the rest, but that knowledge enhances the show’s gloomy intensity. These people are trapped by the demands of monarchy and power, but the inevitability of their fates does not prevent them from struggling to survive, and, more importantly, does not render their struggle static or unmoving. The end result is to humanize individuals long dead, fighting to stay alive and prosper even as their doom closes slowly around them.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
It’s to the show’s credit that the six-part miniseries does a fine job of both telling a complex political tale and capturing the elliptical, observational spirit of Mantel’s books. I didn’t think it could be done, but the cast, as well as writer Peter Straughan and director Peter Kosminsky, bring out the wry, melancholy flavor of Mantel’s books with laudable acuity and consistency. This is not so much an adaptation as a distillation: The power of certain key moments is only amplified by wise and compassionate restraint.
Mike Hale, New York Times
Its virtues are so obvious that raising a few red flags seems more churlish than usual. Fans of costume drama, and of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” the Hilary Mantel novels on which it is based, are likely to be overwhelmingly pleased with this six-episode series. The reviews in Britain were of a rapturousness not seen since “Downton Abbey.” But let’s note, if only for the record, that there’s something the tiniest bit dull at its core.
Will Dean, Independent
British costume drama, especially in the US, often gets too fair a crack of the critical whip, its stodginess forgiven because of the accents and costumes. Just look at the baffling popularity of “Downton Abbey.” It and “Wolf Hall” share a US home in PBS’s Masterpiece strand — an indication of the latter’s ambition. It will struggle to match Julian Fellowes’ blockbuster for impact but six hours of Rylance ought to secure a devoted following.
Brian Lowry, Variety
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.
Robert Bianco, USA Today
It isn’t easy for any actor to hold our attention opposite the larger-than-life Henry — particularly when he’s played with the magnetic mix of charm, steel and mercurial threat that Emmy winner Damian Lewis brings to the role. And yet it’s almost impossible to look away from Rylance, who holds us with pauses and silence rather than rage, and who seems to spend as much time looking away from other characters as at them. Separately, both performances are excellent; combined, they’re majestic.
Sam Wollaston, Guardian
Mark Rylance is hypnotic, understated but totally screen-owning. There are fine performances wherever you look — Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey, Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn, a whole host of other big names playing to the event. Which this is, event television, sumptuous, intelligent and serious, meticulous in the detail, but not humorless or po-faced. History, as seen by a novelist with an eye and an ear for a human story and a character, then condensed with sensitivity and brought back to life again for the small screen.
James Walton, Telegraph
It’s often said the test of a good actor is that you can tell what the character is thinking. What makes Rylance’s performance so riveting, though, is that you can’t. Why, for example, did Cromwell stay so loyal to Wolsey even after the cardinal’s failure to get Henry a divorce had made him an enemy of the king? Was it simply out of decency, or was he cunningly playing the longer game? What, in short, was he up to, and why? Again, it seems a key strength of “Wolf Hall” that we might never get a definitive answer, just a series of intriguing possibilities.