‘Wolf Hall’ Brings Machiavellian Flair and Masterclass Acting to PBS


Nearly everyone agrees that the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall, which will debut this Sunday on PBS Masterpiece, is, well, a masterpiece — or nearly so. The consensus is that the sets are decorous and true to the Tudor period; the costuming expertly done; the actors solid all the way around, with the exception of Mark Rylance, who plays a Cromwell for the ages; and the dialogue both witty and utilitarian. The only hitch, critics will complain, is that TV version of Wolf Hall — which brings together Hilary Mantel’s historical novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies — is dark and ploddingly slow.

And they’re right about everything, except the last bit. Wolf Hall’s recreation of the Tudor era is the best and most convincing ever committed to the small screen. Its sets, which include many of the least-known but best-preserved stately homes in England, are expertly chosen and shot. The show’s dialogue, over the course of six episodes, evolves from dense, richly witty longueurs to painful précis, especially as the death toll mounts. And, yes, Mark Rylance is the draw. His subtle yet smooth-talking (and face-heavy) Cromwell — who can flip kindness into verbal violence without so much as raising his voice — is what can be called a “career performance.” It will be emulated for years to come.

But don’t heed complaints that the show is overly slow or dark. By dark, too, I’m referring to the “scandal” known as “candlegate” in the UK, where some viewers and critics complained that Wolf Hall is literally too dark, that its candlelit interiors make it hard to see. The peculiarity of this complaint is hard to overstate. For starters, the dim interiors of Wolf Hall have the effect of making similar period dramas appear fluorescently lit by comparison — this is how a show set before the advent of electricity should be shot, if its goal is realism. And if you have trouble seeing it, just up the brightness a couple notches.

The truly frustrating complaint is that Wolf Hall is slow. It’s not as if the BBC has adapted the novels into a Rossellini-style historical drama. This complaint begs the question: are audiences now spoiled by shows that move so fast they gentrify quality dialogue and plotting? In “slow” or “well-paced” American television, the effect is often one of aimlessness — the show is relatively slow because its writers haven’t decided where it’s heading. Or, if they know exactly how the show will end, each episode is “cleverly” overstuffed with digressive red-herrings and smokescreens.

None of this is true of Wolf Hall. The show isn’t slow, it is paced. And even though it has the advantage of being based on Mantel’s equally “difficult” yet engrossing historical novels, it should still be commended for fitting two of them, masterfully, in six episodes filled with drama, historical and political fascination, and, at moments, cinematic beauty. The shot of Rylance that recreates Cromwell’s famous portrait, in particular, is indelible.

Like all great television, Wolf Hall is not without controversy. Historical debates about Thomas Cromwell’s intentions and moral caliber rage to this day, and Mantel’s depiction, as well as the BBC’s, is perhaps against the grain. Rylance’s Cromwell is shown to be a realist, the brilliant if Machiavellian son of a blacksmith who navigates the petty whims of King, Queen, and court. Contrastingly, Sir Thomas More, Cromwell’s foil, proves to be a torturer — this did not go down well with British Catholics.

Yet the unifying power of a TV show that can make a fan of Prince Charles — it should be said, despite Mantel’s preference for ministers over monarchs — should not go ignored. Mantel herself desires an adaptation of the third novel in the series, which she is completing now. It’s easy to see why: fans of the novels will admire nearly every directorial and curatorial decision made on its behalf. In this respect, the BBC’s adaptation, arguably the best English language mini-series in some time, never stands apart from Mantel’s novels, but like Thomas Cromwell — Henry VIII’s intrepid, genius minister — is always lingering right by their side.