Wolf Hall

It’s an old story — Henry and Anne — told from a new perspective, that of Thomas Cromwell, the advisor who finally figured out how to end Henry’s marriage.  This 6-hour miniseries is based on Hilary Mantel’s well-regarded books.  I have some quibbles with some of the portrayals — Thomas More is little more than a caricature — but the character of Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son admired by Henry but detested by almost everyone else, seems exactly right.

Cromwell is played by Mark Rylance, considered the premier Shakespearean actor of his generation.  (He was seen in NY last year as Olivia in the all-male RSC version of 12th Night — the BBC actually delayed production of this series for a year to accommodate Rylance’s schedule).  He is in nearly every scene, and dominates the screen even when he says little.  It’s not every stage actor who can make the transition to the small screen, which is based more on facial expressions than voice.  But Rylance is magnificent.

Up-and-coming English actress Claire Foy presents a delightfully petulant Anne.  And Damien Lewis, last scene hanging from a crane in Showtime’s Homeland, is wonderful as Henry.  It may be the first time that the red-haired Henry is played by an actual redhead.

The rest of the cast is made up of the first-rate stage actors that the British usually call on for productions like this — they have a deep bench.  GOT watchers will see a lot of familiar faces.

Production values are high. Many scenes are shot in English country houses of the period.  I also liked the decision to light the production in a way that approximates the period — natural sunlight or candle-punctuated blackness.

This is a talky production — more realpolitik than heaving boobs.  (If you want those, watch Outlander.)  And if you aren’t intimately familiar with Tudor history (i.e., the name Mark Smeaton means nothing to you), you might have some trouble keeping everybody straight, particularly in the first couple of episodes. But stick with it — this is a production whose virtues build slowly.

Currently showing on PBS and available on PBS streaming.


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