For those, like me, who have eagerly devoured Hilary Mantel’s door-stopping Booker-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, the experience was like being taken directly into the world of candlelit Tudor intrigue and the minds of its people.
We see events around King Henry VIII’s court in all their detail – the plotting, the hunting, the finery, the domestic minutiae – and all from the point of view of the man who became Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The person history has largely judged to be a calculating apparatchik is fleshed out and painted in all his flawed, exquisite humanity.
But how could writer Peter Straughan cram over 1,000 pages of story (and there’s a third novel to come) into six hours of drama? It is a monumental task, but it’s one everyone involved appears to have pulled off.
The key to Mantel’s success was to take a well-known story from history and imbue it with dramatic tension. While we all know what will happen to Anne Boleyn, and that Henry will lop the head off another wife and die something of a fat angry old man, the people living these lives didn’t. They did not see themselves as historical figures, they were just in the midst of their lives.
Both Straughan and director Peter Kosminsky have captured the drama and depth of the story, aided by a magisterial performance from Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, the super-smart son of a blacksmith who rose to the highest office in the land.
Rylance is a uniquely gifted performer who marries a brilliant mind with an enormous heart, and even just one look from him seems to carry years of pain, hurt, fear and deep human feeling. The scene in episode one in which he loses his wife and two daughters to sweating sickness is truly devastating; just as heart-breaking is the fact that he is then forced to switch in the next scene to discussing matters of state and the issue of the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon (he mentions his bereavement in passing to his boss, Jonathan Pryce’s good-natured and optimistic Cardinal Wolsey). The marrying of the personal and the public is the great achievement of the book – and now the drama.
Of course, there are other characters in the story and episode one uses flashback to recall Cromwell’s unendurably painful childhood, where he suffered at the hands of his violent father, and to his time as chief advisor to the deposed Wolsey. There is also a deliciously creepy turn from Mark Gatiss as Cromwell’s enemy Bishop Stephen Gardiner.
But everything builds up to Cromwell’s meeting with Damian Lewis’ Henry VIII – constantly mentioned, but only encountered at the end of episode one when he finally appears in all his Henrician glory. The signs are that Lewis will be able combine the charisma and the unpredictable brutality of the Monarch.
But it is on Rylance that the laurels seem likely to be bestowed in what is already looking like it could be the stand out drama of 2015.
Wolf Hall begins airing on BBC2 in January