“Wolf Hall” (2015), the BBC’s six part television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning novels “Wolf Hall”(2009) and “Bringing up the Bodies”(2012), premiered as part of PBS’s Masterpiece series on April 5. “Wolf Hall” follows Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), ancestor of Oliver Cromwell and adviser to Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), as he rises to prominence at Henry’s court.
A historical drama stands or falls based on how well it depicts the period in which it is set, and “Wolf Hall” takes pains to capture the essence of the Tudor era. From the period’s political and religious upheaval, to the time’s lavish costumes, to the flawlessly executed sets, the show succeeds in bringing 16th century England to the small screen. Moreover, all of this attention to detail is not so minute that only a history major could enjoy it. Rather, the detail creates a sense of place that grounds the stories which the show aims to tell. The grittiness of the political machinations in the show’s plot could, at first blush, lead to accusations that the show is merely riding the coattails of “Game of Thrones” (2011-present), the historically rooted and brutal HBO hit show. But sharp writing and compelling performances, coupled with a more deliberate pace, ensure that, with its first episode, “Wolf Hall” has so far managed to avoid grittiness for grittiness’ sake and instead has carved out its own niche, distinct from anything currently on the air.
“Wolf Hall” opens with a collection of title cards set to the mournful plucking of a mandolin, that provide a brief overview of the show’s historical context. A series of dimly-lit shots of cavalry men riding toward a palace follow, which immediately establish a sense of place for the show. The use of visuals to strengthen the ambience continues throughout the episode. From the detailed and varied costumes, with their subdued color palette, to the waxy yellow light cast by tallow candles, the viewer never for a moment forgets that “Wolf Hall” is set in Tudor England. What’s more, no prop, costume or background shown on screen ever feels cheap or hackneyed, a significant achievement given that corner cutting is too often evident in historical drama television shows.
Beyond being visually stunning, “Wolf Hall” parlays top-drawer dialogue, which successfully walks a line between being spoken in a historical register and being comprehensible to a modern audience. Mark Rylance, in particular, shines as the dour Thomas Cromwell. Rylance’s grave and deadpan delivery of Cromwell’s occasionally lyrical statements paints a picture of a man who is loyal, unyielding and ruthlessly efficacious. Rylance’s ability to communicate the core aspects of the character with just his voice is a testament to both the writing and the high-quality of his acting skill. Yet Cromwell is just one of the many compelling characters in “Wolf Hall.” Despite its excellent writing and delivery, the dialogue in “Wolf Hall” nevertheless demands a certain level of attention from its viewers, who must focus lest they lose track of the plot’s constantly evolving political intrigue. Though demanding, the dialogue is peppered with signposts that remind the viewer of the character’s goals and relationships, so the show it is not impossible to follow. The intricacy of the plot and dialogue does perhaps make “Wolf Hall” a poor candidate for a whimsical binge-watching session, however.
All in all, the visually stunning first episode, with its strong historical grounding, compelling characters and finely crafted dialogue, is an outstanding beginning to “Wolf Hall.” If this carefully constructed period drama continues in the manner in which it has begun, it may well come to satisfy those who have come to crave something a little more cerebral than the latest nudity-laden and blood-soaked season of “Game of Thrones.”