'Wolf Hall' Is A Masterful Study Of Power And Politics

04/02/2015 01:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2015

Early on in “Wolf Hall,” Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) confronts someone who deeply wronged him in the past.

“Confront” may not be the right word. Few words are exchanged between two reticent men. At one point, Cromwell picks up a hammer and holds it casually, or maybe not so casually. But the hammer isn’t the focus of the scene. The weight of unspoken words occupies the foreground of this deceptively quiet moment.

As is the case in so many of the finest English dramas, what can’t be said gives the encounter undercurrents of unrest and dissatisfaction. Nothing “happens,” yet I found this psychologically fraught moment hard to forget.

Rank, position, history, money, politics, memory, doomed affection: some or all of these things often constrain the characters in “Wolf Hall” from speaking the truth or acting decisively. Thus the drama feels very English, as does Cromwell’s unsentimental, unswerving devotion to duty -- a duty that leads him, over the course of his career, into a string of unforgiving and nearly amoral situations.

The fantastic “Wolf Hall” is ultra-English is so many ways: It re-tells the foundational tale of Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII using a host of fine actors from the U.K., and the books it’s based on -- “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” -- won novelist Hilary Mantel the Man Booker Prize, highest U.K. literary laurel. Both books won the award, and yes, they really are that good.

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.

Of course, even if you’ve never read the books, this drama is worth making time for, even though April is ridiculously overcrowded with worthy fare. If nothing else, “Wolf Hall” gives Rylance, a noted British actor, his most substantial U.S. TV appearance to date, and he is a continual wonder in the lead role.

It is not a bombastic or tremendously colorful role: It’s Cromwell’s job to react, cogitate and find ways to do the bidding of a succession of imperious personalities: Cardinal Wolsey (who is given engaging warmth by Jonathan Pryce), Henry VIII (who is given bullying charisma and even a sliver of spoiled vulnerability by Damian Lewis) and Anne Boleyn (an almost impossible role to play, but Claire Foy acquits herself well).

Cromwell has his own plans and designs for the English monarchy and for the country as a whole, but he cannot be too obvious about his own ambitions. As was ever the case, a pack of aristocrats at court fill their idle hours with attempts to make people of less exalted rank feel unimportant and insignificant. None of their disdain works on Cromwell, who, I realized, bears several classic traits of classic Hollywood cowboys.

He’s frequently taciturn -- and like Clint Eastwood, Rylance makes the endless variations on his character’s knitted brow compelling -- but when Cromwell speaks, he’s direct and honest in a way that endears him to those mired in hollow performances of “courtesy.” Cromwell is a new kind of man: A knockabout warrior, an entrepreneur, a banker -- a man of parts, as they say in award-winning novels.

Much of “Wolf Hall” is concerned with new ideas about power and class and how to fit men like Cromwell into the existing political system, which is deeply autocratic. New kinds of people -- those who want to read the Bible in English, those whose trade-derived wealth give them the means to fund Henry's ambitions, those who want to take the Pope down a few notches, those in need of new wives -- need to be shoehorned into a rule-bound, intensely hierarchical society, and the number and intensity of internal and external clashes made for much off-with-their-head-ing. Tudor England was a dangerous place, but in the show's telling, the fact that Cromwell was not a broke, conniving nobleman itching to ascend the greasy ladder at court made him that much more valuable to Henry.

The period sets and costumes are gorgeous, but don’t mistake “Wolf Hall” for “Downton Abbey” -- Mantel’s ideas about power are far too subtle and subversive to fit into that hermetically sealed world. And it’s no “Game of Thrones,” which might be another convenient comparison. Apart from the presence of many bearded actors (and seriously, between “Outlander,” “Vikings,” “Game of Thrones” and “Wolf Hall,” we are living through Peak Beard), there are key differences between these Medieval-esque dramas.

Both “Thrones” and “Wolf Hall” are meditations on the ways in which power corrupts -- and miraculously fails to corrupt on occasion -- but don’t look to “Wolf Hall” to supply epic battle sequences, bloody weddings or fiery dragons. In this cerebral drama, people think, they remember, they converse, they use their brains as weapons. It is not action-packed. Blood is shed, but even the smallest smear of it has a quietly painful impact.

There are castles and silk-clad ladies and even men suiting up for a joust, but there is something wonderfully modern and immediate about “Wolf Hall.” It may not be eventful, but in the way "Mad Men" is, it's often quite witty (Rylance deploys dry asides with deadly accuracy and Lewis has a great deal of fun with Henry's regal obliviousness). Kosminsky has a habit of shooting characters as they walk through rooms and down hallways, which gives the enterprise an energy that, weirdly enough, recalls modern cable dramas like "The Shield" and "Battlestar Galactica." This may be a restrained, morally complex drama, but it is far from inert and stodgy in its execution.

Ultimately, this Masterpiece drama has intelligent observations to make about about how people in power -- kings and queens, but they might as well be studio executives, CEOs or presidents -- want their dirty work done without having to be reminded of just how dirty and deceitful it can be. Powerful people, whatever time they live in, don’t want reminders of what they’re truly capable of -- via their flunkies, of course -- so they studiously believe they are better than they are and try to ignore the fact that that people are being kneecapped (or worse) just offstage. Doing something for the greater good is easier if you make other people bear the moral cost of repugnant but debatably necessary acts. Cromwell silently bears that weight -- in his posture, in his delivery, in his eyes, Rylance makes you see what carrying that burden does to the man.

Cromwell is smart enough to know that his “betters” want to, even need to delude themselves. His eyes reflect a truth that this blacksmith's son was always aware of: Those with often power delegate their crimes, necessary and unnecessary, to people like Cromwell, a man who never forgets his duty or the big picture. What so many powerful men and women realize, far too late, is that Cromwell's memory is even more persistent than his loyalty, and sometimes, those who remember everything get to define what constitutes justice.

“Wolf Hall” debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on PBS.

Ryan McGee and I discussed "Wolf Hall," "Outlander" and "Mad Men" in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

Suggest a correction