THE SERIES "Wolf Hall"

WHEN | WHERE Series starts Sunday night at 10 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT It is 1529 and Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) wants a male heir. His wife, poor Katherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley), doesn't know what awaits her (we do). The impatient king -- whose eye has now wandered to Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) -- wants a papal annulment and leaves it to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) and his loyal legal beagle, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), to get him one. This six-parter is based on the Hilary Mantel bestseller about Cromwell, architect of the Reformation and Henry VIII's powerful lieutenant, until his services would no longer be required. This ends with the death of Anne.

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MY SAY A considerable reputation precedes Rylance, as one of the world's great stage actors who has mostly eschewed the temptations of Hollywood. That means he's a relative unknown to most viewers here, and heaven knows what they'll make of this performance. It is in fact magnificent, and a master class in control, subtlety, intelligence and interpretation.

Above all, interpretation: Rylance knows exactly what darkness lies in the heart of his Cromwell, which he reveals hardly at all. At times he speaks just above a hoarse whisper, when he speaks at all. His Cromwell uses silence as effectively and as often as words. Those words invariably are carefully chosen, like sharp knives from a cutlery drawer. "Madame," he tells the doomed queen, "Nothing here is personal."

 When his rival, Thomas More -- who had just resigned from the Chancellor -- tells him that he'll use his free time to write and pray, Cromwell responds: "My recommendation is to write a little, pray a lot."

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But it's also a cold-to-the-touch performance, and often without affect. It demands close inspection, but the closer you inspect, the more out of focus his Cromwell becomes. A sympathetic figure? Or a monster? Does he believe in something? Or nothing at all? A lackey or a leader? Tom Hagen? Or Sonny Corleone?

That's the whole idea. Rylance and "Wolf Hall" -- the name refers to the family estate of the Seymours, who would produce Jane, yet another bride for Henry -- have no interest in turning English history into a neat, black-and-white cartoon full of heroes and villains. Instead, Rylance's Cromwell is compassionate and cruel, empathetic and vicious, along with various other shades. He's a survivor, but he offers few clues about what's behind that primal drive. We are often left to fill in the blanks ourselves.

Peter Kosminsky's direction tends to both reflect and reinforce the ambiguity. Darkness is pervasive. Silence, too. The great wheels of world history are turning -- but you can only hear the birds chirp.


  Damian Lewis's Henry is another revelation. From Charles Laughton's VIII to Jonathan Rhys Meyers', we think we've seen every conceivable flavor, but Lewis adds another. His Henry is a reprobate (of course) but also a charmer. His malevolence is softened by a sense of self-awareness. He's approachable -- but approach at your own risk.

  "Wolf Hall" really is one of the genuine pleasures of the small screen this year, even if it doesn't initially make much of an effort (like Cromwell) to curry your favor.

  But stick with this one. The rewards are considerable.