By Hank Stuever
“Wolf Hall,” a splendidly somber six-part “Masterpiece” series premiering Sunday on PBS, deserves the cartload of praise being heaped upon it — t’would be a shame if it gets lost in the usual Sunday-night TV gridlock.
If you’re feeling nothing from Don Draper these days (and who could blame you?), then hop over to the 16th-century world of Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), the savvy and quietly manipulative lawyer at the center of it all when King Henry VIII (“Homeland’s” Damian Lewis) scandalously marries Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) and effectively starts the Church of England.
Based on Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning historical novels (“Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”), “Wolf Hall” tells a tabloid-worthy tale that has been re-imagined countless ways over the centuries, especially in movies and TV — most recently in Showtime’s satin-sheety “The Tudors.” This time, the story is less tawdry and more sturdily and elegantly envisioned as the political watershed event that it was.
Rylance’s performance is a perfect study in the effectiveness of understatement and mere hints of anguish. Told this way, Cromwell easily becomes one more of television’s “difficult men,” those protagonists burdened with unseemly, even despicable drive. We always wind up rooting for them, even when they’re bad. The last time I fell this hard for such a complex and dour individual was Frances McDormand’s performance in the title role of HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” last fall; “Wolf Hall” similarly has the depth and texture of a long, satisfying film about a person we’ll never quite understand.
Although “Wolf Hall” begins with a series of flash-forwards and flashbacks that could initially discourage a half-interested viewer (this is the series’ only narrative misstep), we quickly come to understand Cromwell in a more sympathetic light than history usually shines on him: an abused child whose intelligence was always viewed as a threat, first by his horrific blacksmith father and then by a succession of disdainful noblemen who resented his presence. We also see him as a grief-stricken widower and father, whose wife and young daughters succumbed overnight to sweating sickness.
In the midst of that, Cromwell is a cool cucumber, doing his best to defend his employer, Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), from Henry’s increasing disdain for Rome. It’s a losing battle, but Cromwell is a master manipulator whose seeming indifference to power is what helps him climb to the highest rungs, eventually aiding the king in self-annulling his marriage in order to remarry Boleyn. “Cromwell, why are you such a person?” asks one of the many nobles who will nevertheless wind up deferring to him.
Lewis is a magnetic and intimidating Henry VIII, accomplishing more with a harsh whisper than he does with a bellicose tantrum. “Do I keep you for what’s easy?” Henry seethes at Cromwell in one scene. “Do you think I’ve promoted you for the charm of your presence? I keep you because you are a serpent. Do not be a viper in my bosom.” (Later, Cromwell muses sadly on his own ascent: “How many men can say, ‘My only friend is the King of England?’ ”)
Not to be outdone, Foy (“Little Dorrit”) is a fearsomely spoiled and scheming queen — rueful of Cromwell and yet, like so many in the castle, dependent on his counsel. There’s also an interesting, less martyr-like take on St. Thomas More (Anton Lesser), who refuses to renounce the Catholic Church and, in so doing, more or less gets what he long deserved.
It doesn’t matter if you know precisely where this story leads (whose head goes to which chopping block). “Wolf Hall” is about as compellingly and meticulously crafted as television gets. And as far as PBS goes, it’s a welcome slap to the prolonged frilliness and silliness of “Downton Abbey,” crime-solving vicars and all that. This is hard-core public programming for the most discerning viewer, and it ends with the tantalizing promise of more to come.