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Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell: together yet again in PBS' very slow-cooked Wolf Hall


Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance are Henry VIII & Thomas Cromwell. PBS photo

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It’s one thing to re-tell a very oft-told tale. It’s quite another to move along at the pace of an arthritic turtle.

PBS’ six-chapter Wolf Hall, premiering under the Masterpiece banner on Sunday, April 5th at 9 p.m. central (re-check your local listings), is completely bereft of the zip that infused Showtime’s The Tudors. That’s not always a bad thing. But after a while, all of those contemplative stares on the part of medieval consigliere Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) begin to take their toll.

Damian Lewis, in his first major role since Homeland, is the other principal as Henry VIII. He’s barely seen in Chapter 1 and is altogether seen too little in a drama that mostly telescopes the tribulations and machinations of the close-to-the-vest Cromwell. Adapted from author Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, the story begins in 1529 and ends in 1536 with the well-known fate of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy).

The likely audience for Wolf Hall already knows that King Henry has been longing to divest himself of wife Katherine (Joanne Whalley) after she’s failed to provide him with a male heir. But the Pope continues to oppose any divorce while Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), is unable to broker a deal.

Cromwell, son of a brutish blacksmith, has become Wolsey’s protege despite being a commoner. Events eventually conspire to put Cromwell in the King’s favor and Wolsey in exile. His assignment is the same. Get Henry to the altar somehow, some way.

Rylance, who at times facially resembles Peter Falk from his Columbo days, is constantly on camera as Cromwell, whose dry sense of humor is trumped by his increasingly conscience-stricken countenance. Still, Cromwell will do what needs to be done after experiencing immense personal tragedy and then the occasional pleasures of the flesh.

One of the better scenes in Wolf Hall comes during Hour 2, when Cromwell is almost giddy after bedding an unhappily married woman whom he has known for years. He earlier gets off a good line after being asked of Boleyn, “Are her teeth good?” Ripostes Cromwell: “When she sinks them into me, I’ll let you know.”

Lewis, as King Henry, convincingly comes alive during a full-blown rage in Hour 5. It’s aimed directly at Cromwell, who by this time has learned how to take a hard punch and then land some of his own on others.

So yes, Wolf Hall has its moments if you have the endurance to wait for them. But The Tudors, although taking far more liberties during its four seasons, kept events moving at a far brisker trot. Explicit sex and graphic violence, completely missing in Wolf Hall, helped to enliven all the never-ending powerbroking. Still, The Tudors also had a fuller menu of vivid characterizations, none more so than Maria Doyle Kennedy’s magnificent portrayal of the spurned Queen Katherine. In Wolf Hall, Katherine never really registers.

Some viewers might luxuriate in Wolf Hall anyway. To be sure, there’s some majesty to be had. But after experiencing/enduring all six hours, I felt let down, sleepy-eyed and very much in need of ye olde Red Bull.

GRADE: B-minus

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