Arts & Culture · Film & Television

Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ Comes to PBS

Wolf Hall was broadcast on BBC2 in the UK earlier this year, and immediately became the most popular television drama since the ratings system began more than a decade ago. An average of 4.4 million tuned in each week; that represents 15.8 percent of all TV viewers.

Critics were equally enthralled. “Event television, sumptuous, intelligent, and serious, meticulous in detail,” reported The Guardian. And The Daily Telegraph raved, “It’s hard to see how this one could have been done much better.”

Director Peter Kosminsky points out that the timing is fortuitous. The BBC’s royal charter is up for renewal and its system of funding will be re-examined and voted on. “Here comes this series, based on two Booker Prize novels with magnificent actors and a substantial investment of time and money. The BBC is saying that this is the kind of thing only the BBC can do.”

The “magnificent” cast includes Mark Rylance as Cromwell. Rylance, best known on both sides of the Atlantic as a stage actor, has won three Tony Awards here in the U.S. In fact, Kosminsky had to postpone shooting for a year while Rylance performed in Richard III and Twelfth Night in the West End and on Broadway. Kosminsky explains why he was willing to wait: “Mark is arguably the best actor of his age-group working today. He is a director, a writer, and has run a theatre for 10 years.”

Emmy and Golden Globe winner Damian Lewis (Homeland) is Henry VIII, and Claire Foy (Little Dorrit) is the doomed Queen Anne Boleyn. Jonathan Pryce is Cardinal Wolsey

Novelist Mantel claims to be thrilled with the adaptation. She praises Peter Straughan’s script as “a miracle of elegant compression.” PBS is promoting the mini-series as “a historical drama for a modern audience, this unromanticized re-telling lifts the veil on the Tudor middle class and the internal struggles England faced on the brink of Reformation. At the center of it all is Cromwell, navigating the moral complexities that accompany the exercise of power, trapped between his desire to do what is right and his instinct to survive.”

Although Wolf Hall is mostly Cromwell’s story, it offers an alternative look at one of the period’s other key players. As Kosminsky explained in an interview with the BBC,

“Wolf Hall has altered my opinion of Tudor figures across the board. But probably most dramatically of Anne Boleyn. I didn’t know that much about her before we started. But during my research I discovered that Anne was not simply an ambitious and scheming knight’s daughter who over-reached herself and paid the price in blood. Anne was a very significant political figure in her own right . . . Anne was probably a proto-feminist. Women, perhaps especially royal women in that era, were little more than merchandise–sold into wedlock for the advancement of the male members of their family. For a woman to be such a player, politically and spiritually, was extremely unusual in the early 16th century. By the end of our film-making, especially as played by Claire Foy, I found myself lost in admiration for Anne and devastated by her unjust killing.”

Episode 1 of Wolf Hall will premiere on PBS, Sunday April 5th at 10 p.m. EST. It sounds like the sort of smart costume drama, with a “proto-feminist” twist, that we could easily lose our heads over.

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