Review: Wolf Hall

Grace Murray 12 February 2015

Given the relentless fervour that has surrounded the Wolf Hall brand for several years now, some check on its runaway success feels long overdue. But if this much-anticipated adaptation has not quite matched the popular acclaim of its source-material, as declining ratings would seem to indicate, this is no reflection on the quality on the drama produced.

An impressive cast, headed by Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis, extends to even the more minor roles, evoking the sheer density of personalities at court. Jonathan Pryce as a newly vulnerable Wolsey is particularly notable, suggesting at once defencelessness and a more sinister past. Ultimately it is of course Rylance who, as Thomas Cromwell, is the heart of the show, and the understated, restrained nature of his performance works well, providing a solid centre from which to view an increasingly unsteady world.

A corresponding modesty in direction may well prove Wolf Hall’s greatest strength. Sets are authentic and suitably Holbein-esque, but overly-contrived, ostentatious grandeur is eschewed in favour of a more “lived-in” feel, allowing locations to feel like actual homes rather than museums. More significantly, the flamboyant Machiavellianism familiar to audiences of Rome or Game of Thrones is distinctly absent in these opening episodes, a wise move which has invested the various unfolding plots with human weight rather than purely sensational intrigue.

One suspects this will serve future episodes well when the promised onslaught truly begins. And indeed, it will ultimately be these next instalments which, as they chart Cromwell’s rapid ascent, determine whether Wolf Hall is simply a well-produced adaptation of a bestseller, or a classic BBC drama in its own right.