Beginning Sunday and for the following five weeks, PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" will be the home of "Wolf Hall." When I say that it is no "Downton Abbey," I mean it in the best way.
A miniseries based on a pair of novels by the English writer Hilary Mantel, it focuses on Thomas Cromwell, who rose from more or less nowhere to become the right hand of Henry VIII, a position with its advantages and also its disadvantages, as even a casual student of English history, or a person who has ever seen a movie about Henry or his wives, would know.
Not to be confused with his better known great-great-great-nephew Oliver, Cromwell — whom Mantel paints more sympathetically than is usually the case — has been having a moment of his own: Even as "Wolf Hall" comes to television, the Royal Shakespeare Company's theatrical adaptation is playing on Broadway.
He's played here by that titan of English theater Mark Rylance. Cromwell had led a colorful, wide-ranging life, much of it in Europe, as a soldier, merchant and lawyer before he found his way home and into the service of Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) and then King Henry (Damian Lewis); he was a man who got things done, a survivor but also a supporter — a believer in England, in whatever form the situation demanded. It's as if Tom Hagen, the consigliere played by Robert Duvall, were the main character of "The Godfather."
He's a flawed hero, certainly — involved in more deaths than one, including those of Thomas More (Anton Lesser) and Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) — but we like him because he's practical, witty, above superstition, almost above religion: a master of realpolitik, a modern man who educates his daughters like his son. ("What will London be like when that one's lord mayor?" he asks of one daughter). We like him because the titled jocks and mean girls of the 16th century English court do not.
"God, Cromwell, why are you such a person?" says the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), annoyed.
What Mantel has done in her heralded books, and what this screen version does as well, is to pare the pomp, bringing her characters down to life size, making them legible to the modern ear and eye — much as Shakespeare's histories played to Shakespeare's contemporaries, perhaps. The camerawork has a documentary float to it; the actors speak modern prose; the bowing and scraping and doffing of hats seem as natural as a handshake or shoulder hug. (Less artificial than the hug, maybe.)
As on the page, the screen "Wolf Hall" — streamlined, even at six hours — is both stately and fast-moving, exceedingly still yet highly suspenseful. Much of the action is in conversation — between people seated at dinner or meeting in a hallway or standing around like mannequins hierarchically arrayed in groupings meant to appear occasional. But there is a war going on among them.
Rylance, who resembles neither Hans Holbein's portrait of Cromwell nor any contemporary account of him, is fascinating to watch, doing what looks like very little, intensely. He somehow manages to let you see both the poker face and the thoughts and feelings it disguises. Serious without being excessive about it, cutting when he needs to be, sad about his disjointed times, he's something like a cross between Buster Keaton and Michael Kitchen in "Foyle's War" — or any wry, ironic English screen detective you like. You might tune in just to admire him.
Lewis, best known here for his American-accented role in "Homeland," is a leaner Henry VIII than we are used to (puffy clothing fills him out), but he has all the familiar royal poses down pat — the akimbo arms, the propped leg — and creates a convincing likeness of a dangerously changeable being logical only to himself as he argues himself out of one wife and into another in his pursuit of a male heir.
"Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," the books adapted here under the first title, are two thirds of a yet to be completed trilogy, and though the series comes to a natural stopping place, it also feels, at the finish, incomplete. Cromwell's fate is, of course, ancient history — well, Renaissance history — but saying any more feels like a spoiler now that he's on TV. You can look it up if you like. Or wait for the next miniseries.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday