There’s been much anticipation about the next television project for Damian Lewis. Since wowing us in Homeland and exiting unexpectedly, audiences have been waiting for his next move.
That move is as Henry VIII in BBC’s historical drama, Wolf Hall. Based on two books by author Hilary Mantel, the setting is 1529 Tudor England. But Lewis is not the start of this 6 part saga. That falls to Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance (Prospero’s Books, Intimacy, The Government Inspector).
Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell, lawyer to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), who has risen from humble beginnings as the son of a blacksmith.
“At last. A man born in a more lowly state than myself!” declares the Cardinal.
But the Cardinal is on the outer with his king, due to his inability to negotiate an annulment of the marriage to Catherine (Joanne Whalley) who has in turn been unable to bear an heir to the throne. Henry VIII instead has eyes for the “flat-chested” Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy).
“The king will have her in his bed by autumn, tire of her and cast her off!”
Cromwell remains loyal to the Cardinal despite his increasing isolation and there are whispers in great echoing corridors that he too could go down with Wolsey.
While Wolf Hall focusses heavily on the machinations of power by men in grand costume, it also profiles Cromwell the family man. He lost his wife and two daughters to an epidemic of sweating sickness while his father, who beat (and kicked) him violently as a child, remains a haunting presence.
Cromwell also has many opponents, including Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), determined to take back France.
“I knew there was something about you that I didn’t like, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” Howard tells him.
The intent is to depict Cromwell sympathetically, as a wielder of great influence in the British monarchy and, ultimately, the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Historians may argue a sympathetic character differs significantly from factual evidence, but as television it’s theory that has no finer ally than Mark Rylance.
Rylance is simply outstanding in this role, underplaying the role with quiet awe. He is observer, manipulator and loyalist, never seeking to upstage scenes of immense political power or lavish costumes and backdrops.
Damian Lewis doesn’t appear until the final stages of the first episode, as Henry begins to take a guarded interest in Cromwell. Despite having limited dialogue in the first episode, he hits a bull’s eye for precision.
Supporting roles will also include Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) as the snide Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Anton Lesser as Thomas More, constantly challenging Cromwell’s alignment.
Directed by Peter Kosminsky (The Promise, White Oleander) and adapted by Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), this is money on the screen. Regal costumes, and historic locations abound, there is much for the eye to behold.
Yet there are also plenty of scenes with lingering space between the ensemble. While they aren’t so wide as to drive a coach through them, they do create a bit of a slow-burn. Given this, BBC First will wisely launch this with a double episode.
Wolf Hall may lean more to episodic storytelling than historical accuracy, but it is worlds apart from the romp of The Tudors. If you’re looking for a cast that wraps its lips around some rich material, look no further.
Wolf Hall airs 8:30pm Saturday on BBC First.