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Everyone loves a good yarn about the British royals, and if the first two episodes are any indication, PBS’ six-part miniseries Wolf Hall is a terrific one. Directed by Peter Kosminsky (of the 2011 miniseries The Promise) and adapted by Peter Straughan from a pair of Booker Prize-winning novels (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) by Hilary Mantel, the show looks at the reign of King Henry the VIII (Damian Lewis) through the eyes of his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance).
We first meet Cromwell pre-Henry, near the end of his time serving Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), a powerful member of the Catholic Church, who is on the cusp of disgrace. Wolsey has fallen out of favor with King Henry after failing to secure the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley), so he can wed Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). Wolsey introduces Cromwell as his “lawyer” when the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill) comes to kick the Cardinal out of his residence. It’s clear Cromwell knows just the things to say, and just the air of mystery to maintain, to keep his master shielded from the worst of things.
The first two episodes are mostly dedicated to Cromwell’s time with Wolsey, alternating between the blissful early days as he rises in the ranks to the much more trying present as he attempts, with little success, to convince King Henry of the Cardinal’s worth. It’s gripping in the way that watching behind-the-scenes political machinations and backstabbing can be, though contrary to some early whispers, Cromwell isn’t quite the same schemer as Frank Underwood on House of Cards.
For starters, Rylance is a much more placid presence, barely showing his character’s emotions even in the most dire circumstances. There’s a scene in which Cromwell — just days after his wife and two daughters unexpectedly fall victim to disease — calmly listens to the Cardinal unburden himself. Only after his master takes a very long pause does he confess his family tragedy, and then speaking of it more as a clinical fact rather than a plea for sympathy. Restraint and caution seem to be Cromwell’s personal maxims. By revealing so little, he is better able to control any situation that may arise.
So though the Duke of Norfolk and his cronies crack wise about Cromwell’s low birth, he lets the insults roll off his back and concentrates on impressing King Henry, who seems taken with this deceptively serene man, even though he is Wolsey’s second. In the best sequence of the first two episodes, a fearful King Henry confides in Cromwell about a nightmare involving his deceased father. Without missing a beat, our hero turns everything negative about the dream into a positive, until he’s convinced King Henry that it was actually a prophetic reverie proving his God-given right to rule. A brilliant bit of bullshit, in other words, spun with a master’s conviction.
There is undoubtedly more intrigue to come, and it will be interesting to see how Rylance’s superb performance evolves as Cromwell gets within spitting distance of the throne. For the moment, he’s a perfect model of stoicism, and the few flickers of feeling that cross his face (a smattering of tears after the death of his wife and children) hint that when Cromwell’s downfall comes — as history says it must — it won’t be pretty. The supporting actors are equally excellent, from Pryce’s scattered and weary Cardinal (his friendship with Cromwell seems a lone respite from his troubles) to Lewis’s multifaceted King Henry, at once a tenacious ruler, an entitled lothario and an unapologetically spoiled man-child.
Sparks are sure to fly between the King and Cromwell. To that, we can only say — cribbing an especially bad pun from the advertising for Showtime’s late, not-so-lamented The Tudors — let there be reign.
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