One of the lessons of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” the thing that has made them trailblazing TV as well as superb TV, has been their revelation that many viewers are actually quite willing to watch slow drama, that we’re ready to forsake editing that presumes we need constant motion, that we can savor a gradual dramatic build when the rewards are great.
You’ll need to remember that lesson and flex your focus muscles a bit when it comes to “Wolf Hall,” PBS’s new six-part “Masterpiece” minseries based on the celebrated Henry VIII novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel.
This isn’t the bodice-ripping, horse-hopping likes of “The Tudors,” the enjoyably soapy Showtime take on the king; it’s a more elegant, downbeat, intensely acted portrait of his political maneuvers and an intriguing character study of the architect of many of them, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance). The only thing that moves quickly in “Wolf Hall” is Cromwell’s brain, as he shrewdly makes himself indispensable , first to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) and then to Henry (Damian Lewis).
And so watching “Wolf Hall,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on WGBH 2, can be a bit like watching a chess game — a really shrewd and psychologically riveting chess game, but still. It is the epitome of slow drama, with action taking place off-screen while intentional silences wreak havoc in the hollow Tudor halls. The miniseries pays off along the way, particularly with Rylance’s extraordinary performance, and it also accumulates into something gripping in the last three episodes. Also, the length and the quiet of some of the scenes mesmerize you into the moment of life in the 1500s, helped by a seductive production design and fire-lit cinematography that is dim and transporting. But only you’ll know if you have the patience to let “Wolf Hall” work its magic on you.
The story outline is a familiar one, although some of the characters and twists may be new and a little confusing to those of us who aren’t historians. King Henry is desperate for a son, and hoping to annul his marriage to Katherine (Joanne Whalley) so he can marry Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). Cardinal Wolsey has failed to get the Pope’s approval on the annulment, which has put him in the doghouse when the series opens. Cromwell has become Wolsey’s protégé, and the two have an affecting father-son-like rapport. But despite the fact that Wolsey is in disfavor, Cromwell begins to move closer to the king, giving him clever ideas about how to raise tax revenues, among other things. Soon he is on the king’s staff.
I kept thinking of Cromwell as a kind of 16th-century Ray Donovan, a fixer for the wealthy and powerful and a somewhat inscrutable man. In Rylance’s hands, following Mantel’s vision, he is quietly sardonic, always in control of what he reveals by his face and in his words, and always watchful. His childhood as the son of a violent blacksmith (whose abuse we see in flashbacks) has given him a tough exterior and taught him to keep his thoughts to himself, which we see with painful vividness when he reports to work with Wolsey with only a brief mention that his wife and two of his children have just died from illness.
Cromwell isn’t emotion-less; he grieves the deaths in his private way, and he looks for romantic love later. He clearly has opinions about the king, particularly when Henry tires of Anne toward the end of the miniseries and he must pave the way for yet another marriage. Every so often, his mouth betrays an ironic smirk. But he understands that holding back feelings gives him power. Watch him watching Anne, who’s a mess of threats and insecurities played effectively by Foy. He hears her demands and ignores them, well aware that he knows her secrets, that she will self-destruct. He has an always-lurking thuggish aspect to his personality, and to his face, which is distinguished by Rylance’s bushy eyebrows. When the king tells him, “I keep you because you are a serpent,” you know he’s right.
Rylance is surrounded by actors who serve his performance well, notably Lewis, whose Henry is as colorful, vain, and irritable as Rylance is restrained. Pryce is remarkable as the nervous Wolsey, and Anton Lesser is even more so as Sir Thomas More. In the very fine fourth episode, Cromwell works to get More to sign an oath that declares Henry head of the Church, and More’s refusals are unnervingly passionate. The scene of his resistance is long and slow, by the way, but worth every second.