TV review: Wolf Hall, BBC Two (4 stars)

TV review: Wolf Hall

Historical drama designed for the 21st Century

Wolf Hall is the kind of quality historical drama that will have various constituencies getting excited. Scholars of Tudor times can reignite their debate about author Hilary Mantel portraying Thomas Cromwell as the moral core of the story, side-lining the previously popular Thomas ‘Man for All Seasons’ More as at best staid and uncompromising, at worst a callous torturer and vile misogynist.

Those who like to see everything in a post-Sopranos light (hiya!) will be encouraged at reports that there are more complexities (of both personality and deed) afforded the key figures in this show than your average costume affair. Here, the intricate power games are played out against a backdrop of pre-Reformation fundamentalism rather than Italian-American gangsterism.

And for historical drama buffs there’ll more than enough to keep them happy with the lavish costumes, extinct diseases and iconic characters from the past made flesh by some of our finest acting talent. This six-part drama features (deep breath) Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, Joanne Whalley as Catherine of Aragon, Anton Lesser as Thomas More and Mark Rylance, via a devastating and subtly brilliant performance, is Thomas Cromwell, the lens through which the entire drama is filtered.

Director Peter Kosminsky has worked with Rylance before (in The Government Inspector he played Dr David Kelly, the scientist who was caught up in the scandalous machinations over the invasion of Iraq and tragically paid with his life) and has helped tease out another big portrayal on the small screen. Cromwell is caught in the middle of his King and his Cardinal, with the former trying to extricate himself from Rome so he can get shot of Catherine of Aragon in order to take Ann Boleyn as his new bride: after all, what is a monarch to do when he’s obsessed with having himself a male heir?

For those who haven’t read Mantel’s Tudor novels, a quick scan of the history books will reveal how this tragic story ends. But if you’re eagerly looking for a new TV landmark in historical drama, Wolf Hall looks like being a true delight worth waiting for.

Wolf Hall starts on BBC Two, Wed 21 Jan, 9pm.

Wolf Hall | Official Trailer