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The PBS Version Of 'Wolf Hall' Unfolds Like A Real-Life House Of Cards

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, in for Terry Gross. A few years ago, the British costume drama "Downton Abbey" surprised almost everyone with its instant popularity, including PBS, which imported the series for a delighted U.S. audience. This Sunday, the same PBS "Masterpiece" anthology series presents a new costume drama, "Wolf Hall," which in England was hailed as the best thing since - well, since "Downton Abbey." "Wolf Hall" is based on the historical novels by Hilary Mantel and is set in the reign of King Henry VIII. But "Wolf Hall" looks at that era's intrigue, betrayals and beheadings from a different perspective. The central character in Mantel's version is Thomas Cromwell, the Machiavellian adviser to the king. Today on FRESH AIR we visit with author Hilary Mantel. But first, we have a review of the new TV production of "Wolf Hall," courtesy of our critic at large, John Powers.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The past is a foreign country, L.P. Hartley famously wrote, they do things differently there. Well, yes and no. While those who lived long ago didn't see life as we do, they still shared ordinary human emotions - love, fear, ambition, pleasure in eating a perfectly ripe peach. If you want to make history come alive, you must capture the trembling balance between what makes the past foreign and what makes it familiar. Few novels do this more thrillingly than Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up The Bodies." These acclaimed bestsellers shake centuries of dust off the historical novel and make a 16th century tale feel like it's happening right now. They're so good that many fans groaned when they heard that the BBC was going to turn them into a television series. Most TV costume dramas, after all, are made by embalmers instead of storytellers. Not so "Wolf Hall." Streamlining a thousand pages of fiction into six dense hour-long episodes, this is a darkly-lit, finely acted and thoroughly compelling series that unfolds like a real-life house of cards. Mark Rylance stars as Thomas Cromwell, a ruthlessly pragmatic blacksmith's son who rises to become chief minister of Henry VIII, a ruler with big appetites and dangerous caprices. He's played by Damian Lewis, best known for being Brody on "Homeland." Cromwell wins Henry's favor through his skill at getting things done. In particular, in helping his highness shuck the wives who don't give him a male heir. He spends his days machinating in a world filled with characters playing the game of thrones. There's Cromwell's patron, Cardinal Wolsey, a wise, corrupt and humorous man splendidly played by Jonathan Pryce. There's sanctimonious Thomas More - that's Anton Lesser - who emerges not as the heroic figure from "A Man For All Seasons," but as a zealot whose immaculate principles lead him to torture those who don't share them. And then there's the woman Henry wants to make his second wife, ambitious Anne Boleyn, played by Claire Foy, as the sort of sexy, imperious vixen you can imagine a king wanted to bed and behead. Cromwell must handle them all and more. Here he meets with the dissolute Earl of Northumberland, who endangers Henry's marriage to Anne and threatens to have his IOUs called in.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Earl of Northumberland) How can I explain this to you? The world is not run from where you think it is, from border fortresses - even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon, from wherever the merchant ships set sail off into the West. Not from castle walls - from counting houses. From the pens that scrape out your promissory notes. So believe me when I say that my banker friends and I will rip your life apart.

POWERS: This is clearly not someone you want to mess with. It's the brilliant originality of Mantel's novels that she erratically transforms Cromwell's dark image as a grim hatchet man. She not only endows him with a rich and lively humanity, but makes us believe he's the one truly modern person in the story. Mantel takes us inside Cromwell by showing us the whole world through his eyes. TV can't begin to match such interior richness, so "Wolf Hall" deftly focuses on his outer maneuverings. We're constantly looking over Cromwell's shoulder or watching his face react to what's going on around him. This becomes riveting because of Rylance, widely reckoned this era's greatest British stage actor. He elevates the show with his droll, quietly eloquent turn as Cromwell, a poker-faced man in a black cap who knows the power of listening and the ways of ambiguity. His eyes take in everything, even perhaps inklings of his own doom. The Cromwell who emerges from both versions of "Wolf Hall" is a dynamo of complexity - a lawyer, a businessman and a bit of a thug, who, despite his earthbound materialism, becomes central to the English Reformation. His power comes from knowing worldly things that the effete souls of the court do not - how to find an honest builder, say, or how to get an innocent man to confess without torture. As he maneuvers among those who despise his low berth, we find ourselves rooting for him in spite his immorality and sometimes because of it. Man, is he good at scheming. Of course, in his attempts to create his own destiny, Cromwell bumps up against the truth we all face - the world is bigger and stronger than we are. No matter how high he rises or how much power he attains, he's never safe from unexpected events, his enemies' sharp teeth or the mercurial nature of a king who likes him - until he doesn't.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is critic at large for Vogue and vogue.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.

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