Wolf Hall episode 1 review: Three Card Trick

BBC Two's Wolf Hall opens its doors to reveal a splendid, well-cast and surprisingly modern political drama…

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Three Card Trick

Following a PR campaign so inescapable it might give pause even to the self-promoting Tudors themselves, Wolf Hall’s heavy, ornate door has finally been pushed open.

What do we find inside? Proof that the BBC was entirely justified in splashing Damian Lewis’ dishy Henry VIII and Mark Rylance’s inscrutable Thomas Cromwell over countless magazine covers. It’s tremendous stuff; a richly textured brocade compared to the flimsy, titillating chiffon of The White Queen and The Tudors.

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Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s revisionist take on Cromwell’s career in the Henrician Court by playwright and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Frank, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy), Wolf Hall is historical drama at its best. It avoids cheesy dramatic irony of the “Anne Boleyn? Pfff, nothing will ever come of her!” sort, and doesn’t confuse steamy nipple shots with narrative intrigue. The nipple count is non-existent in fact – unless you count Cromwell’s dry digs at Mary Boleyn’s flat-chested sister.

Straughan’s script is nimble enough not to trip over itself with exposition, rare enough in TV historical fiction. Somehow, he keeps us all apprised of who’s who without having each character recite a chunk of the Domesday Book every time they enter a room. Despite the episode featuring more men named Thomas than you can shake a papal crozier at, it’s easy to keep track.

More likely to trip us up is the chronology, which skips from 1529 to 1521 then back to months, and then weeks before the Cardinal was stripped of power. Miss the bearings provided by the captions and you might be left scratching your head (just another reason not to take your eyes off this handsome series, really).

It’s an elegant script, and not without a sense of humour. Even the title cards have a wry personality about them as they drolly inform us that serial beheader “Henry VIII was not a forgiving man”.

Mantel painted Cromwell as a coolly intelligent strategist, a low-born hero who progresses through the ranks on his wits and his loyalty. The founder of the modern state (as the man who ushered England towards the Reformation), his career brims with dramatic potential, not that Wolf Hall entirely ignores his domestic life, nor its tragedies, either. (When people can drop dead so unexpectedly, it’s little wonder they believed in witchcraft).

Rylance plays the lead role with shrewd impassivity. His Cromwell is a man with an enjoyably sharp wit, and an admirably sharp mind. He’s a fond father, a prudent reformer – even a social liberal judging by the education he provides for his daughter (“What will London be like when that one’s Lord Mayor?” he jokes to his beloved wife, Liz). In short, Cromwell’s exactly the kind of character a modern audience can rally around.

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He’s also not a man to get on the wrong side of, one feels, especially in the scene where he issues a veiled threat to an upstart lute player earlier overheard crowing about his and “the old man’s” imminent downfall. A formerly beaten child steadfastly loyal to his political father figure – Jonathan Pryce’s regal Cardinal Wolsey – this Cromwell is a modern hero, not least when he’s showing up toffs at the dinner table and quietly rebelling against the Crown by having Wolsey’s crest repainted in the palace from which the Cardinal was recently ousted in favour of the King’s mistress. Who doesn’t love a clever strategist?

Or a slithering antagonist, for that matter. We didn’t see much of Cromwell’s political rival Stephen Gardiner (a brilliantly arch Mark Gatiss) this week, but there was boo-hiss fun in what we were shown. Bernard Hill’s Duke of Norfolk too, offered a great line in threats and red-blooded Englishness.

Conducting those performances is acclaimed stage director Peter Kosminsky (yet another of Wolf Hall’s talents borrowed from the theatre) who, along with cinematographer Gavin Finney, lets us pass under the red velvet rope of England’s stately homes and sink into their opulence.

There’s always something to enjoy looking at in a BBC period drama (if all else fails, the curtains are usually my failsafe) but this one is resplendent from head to toe. No perfume ad wispiness for this century, Wolf Hall has a robust magnificence about it, from its production design to Debbie Wiseman’s score. It’s no-messing sumptuousness.