Some of the most important and fascinating characters in history never officially ruled nations but nonetheless amassed great personal power which they put to use for their own ends as well as in the interest of the state.
We think of Cardinal Richelieu during the reign of Louis XIII in France and Cardinal Wolsey in the early years of Henry VIII’s tenure on the English throne.
Kings, queens, presidents and dictators all have official histories, but power brokers, as they embody the precepts of Machiavelli, often operate in whole or part behind the scenes.
Henry VIII takes second billing in “Wolf Hall,” the sprawling six-hour adaptation of two historical novels by Hilary Mantel, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” Premiering Sunday at 10 p.m., the miniseries is both brilliant and maddening and only really pays off in the final two episodes, after you’ve more or less figured out who the characters are, how they’re related to each other, and what the hell they are saying during endless, slow-moving conversations spoken, of course, in what to many Yanks is a foreign tongue: British English.
Cromwell (Mark Rylance), a blacksmith’s son who rose to a position of great power after hitching his wagon to Cardinal Wolsey’s (Jonathan Pryce) star, engineered both the marriage and subsequent decapitation of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Henry VIII’s (Damian Lewis) second wife.
To marry Anne, Henry needed Rome to grant an annulment from his first wife, the pious Katherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley). Wolsey couldn’t make it happen and fell from favor in Henry’s court. Cromwell worked carefully to rebuild Henry’s trust in Wolsey, but it wasn’t to be and the cardinal died before answering charges of treason.
Cromwell’s loyalty to the cardinal and finely honed skill at backstage maneuvering impressed Henry, who made use of him as continuing frustration with Rome led to the Act of Supremacy in 1534, establishing Henry as head of the Church of England.
All of this should be familiar to viewers either through history books or other film and television versions of the events, which, of course, largely focused on Henry and Anne. Although Cromwell is often a character in these adaptations, he’s rarely in the spotlight.
“Wolf Hall” is a welcome exception as screenwriter Peter Straughan allows us to peer into the brilliantly crafty mind of Cromwell, who never seems to forget a slight and always ensures retribution, sooner or later.
Paradoxically to both its credit and detriment, the script builds excessively slowly. Flashbacks tell us how Cromwell was abused by his father. We also learn of tragedy early in his marriage, and there are suggestions of a great lost love haunting him. We get to know him bit by bit, but the more we know, the more we want to know.
That’s a workable strategy in theory, but in practice, it makes for a lugubriously vexing script.
Fortunately, “Wolf Hall” has Rylance to fill in the silences in the long, drawn-out chats, of which there are no end, with a beautifully modulated, quietly revealing performance.
“Wolf Hall” is filled with extraordinary performances, including Foy’s Anne Boleyn, whose execution scene is horrifyingly palpable. Lewis is mostly terrific as Henry, but he seems to have been instructed to walk around at all times in the pose of the famous (but lost) full body portrait by Holbein – fists on his waist, legs spread apart, resolute look on his face.
In addition to unending, drama-free conversations and lack of clarity about who’s who, “Wolf Hall” will test the endurance of every viewer because Peter Kosminsky has directed it as if he were directing an iceberg down a mountainside. Even regular PBS viewers, who have no doubt developed singular intestinal fortitude after years of being subjected to vacuous pledge-drive fare, will find their patience tested.
If I come off as a Colonial troglodyte, so be it: It won’t be either the first or last time. I know my English history, but it is advisable to have a laptop handy set to Google names like Mark Smeaton, Eustace Chapuys, Rafe Sadler, Thomas Wriotheseley and William Brereton.
But this is the maddening part, because although “Wolf Hall” does require an unusual amount of work on the viewer’s part, as well as the patience of, well, a saint, the performances and how they eventually elucidate the theme of what power can do to a man and a nation when it becomes too personal, make it mostly but belatedly worthwhile.