read a brilliant review from the Guardian about Wolf Hall and its fabulous cast and crew!!
Six hours and a single sword swipe, and the king’s Great Matter is finally resolved. Last night saw the end of Anne Boleyn, and the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s books Bring up the Bodies and Wolf Hall (BBC2). There wasn’t a moment of Peter Kosminsky’s direction or Peter Straughan’s deft, beautifully elliptical writing that left you wanting for anything throughout this six-week splendour. But the final 15 minutes – with Anne’s death interspersed with flashbacks to Thomas Cromwell’s typically reluctant, typically thorough, inspection of the scaffold – were exceptional.
How do you dramatise a world that is mostly interior calculation, silent power plays and noiseless traps? By assembling a cast in which there is not one weak link. Try Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey; Anton Lesser as the unflinching, infuriating Thomas More; and Damian Lewis as Henry (“Could you give us the kind of charismatic kingship that lasts down the ages with a side order of ego and caprice that could usher in a religious reformation? But we need to be able to love him, too, else this whole thing makes no sense?” “Coming right up”). And, as if that weren’t enough, Claire Foy moving flawlessly from bold, brave and brilliant bitch to sacrificial lamb as Anne Boleyn; and, of course, Mark Rylance as the indefatigable, implacable, terrifying, awe-inspiring Cromwell, delivering a performance that will probably require the invention of new awards.
Even the very smallest roles were played brilliantly, such as this final episode’s executioner, established by Philippe Spall, within the space of a few minutes and fewer lines, as a man with professional pride and no little compassion; the person you would want on your side if you ever had to mount the scaffold to clear the way for Jane Seymour. Kosminsky and Straughan did this with a script that made you weep with its shining rigour and boggle at the amount of weight it was seamlessly structured to bear, every line doing double duty, without it ever creaking under the strain. And by resisting the directorial temptation to yomp through the tale at speed, instead trusting in the talent at play and the viewers at home, to create something so compelling that – as with Mantel’s books – you forgot that you knew what must come next, and watched life unspool as if it had never been lived before.
More historical power struggles were examined by Amanda Vickery in the first episode of her new three-part documentary Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power (BBC2). It opened with astonishing footage of Emily Wilding Davison stepping in front of the king’s horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913 and being trampled underfoot. It then stepped back nearly 300 years to examine the first stirrings of the battle for female suffrage that would eventually reach such a passionate pitch.
In 1649, the “bonny Besses in sea-green dresses” – a group of female Levellers – thought the mother of all parliaments was pregnant with possibility, and petitioned for women to be allowed a greater share in government. It didn’t work, but it was a first shot across the patriarchal bows. As Vickery outlined in her brisk and accessible manner, 100 years later women were still essentially the property of their husbands, who could beat, dispossess and literally auction them off at cattle markets if they had a mind to. A few spectacularly rich aristocratic women, who by the luck of the chromosomal draw in their family trees had been able to avoid the laws of primogeniture, were able to wield private and social influence over the affairs of the day. But any attempt to do it officially was stamped upon hard until Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the revolutionary politics of the late 1700s began to destabilise the status quo.
From there, it took just a few short decades of frequently dangerous activism by women’s reform societies – spearheaded by Hannah More’s full-blooded philanthropy, which gave women an acceptable way to start edging into political life – before the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed. And women … were expressly excluded from the right to vote. Before then, it had just been assumed.
Baby steps, ladies, baby steps. Next week, let us hope that the old song has it right and that things can only get better.
“first of all Thank you very much for one of the best things that ever happend on TV
Wolf Hall was outstanding,provoking, brilliant and just beautiful.
thanks to the amazing performers especially Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis to the writer and director and to everyone who was involved in this outstanding piece of art!!
big thanks again to all of you for your nice and wonderful comments over the past six weeks,it was a pleasure
to read and to post them here. you and Wolf Hall made us happy!!
“Damian Lewis is by far the most terrifying Henry VIII I’ve ever seen”
“Mark Rylance Damian Lewis and the whole cast superb”
“I spent the entire 6 episodes of wolf hall wanting to slap Henry VIII. Which I think means that Damian Lewis did a spectacular job”
Inevitably, Wolf Hall (BBC Two) finished on a bum note: the downward rush of a gleaming sword, the sickening squelch and roll of a queen’s decapitated head. Anne Boleyn’s execution, preordained by history, an inescapable plot point.
But there was still a kink left in the tale, a great wash of emotion and fear in the closing seconds as Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) bore the tidings to his king (Damian Lewis) and submitted, in silence, to his embrace. As the cameras circled round from Henry’s monstrous beam of joy, over his shoulder Cromwell’s face was devoid of expression, his eyes chillingly empty.
Has there ever been a more baleful stare? A premonition of Cromwell’s own fate, perhaps? Or a stark image of a man who has sold his soul to satisfy a despot’s whims? More than anything, Peter Straughan and Peter Kosminsky’s splendid adaptation – or distillation, rather – of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies put the emphasis on power, its gain and its loss.
For five intense episodes we had watched, through darkness, silences, glimpses and occasional bursts of soul-searingly brilliant dialogue (almost all mined verbatim from the books) the inexorable rise of a man so impossibly “low born” as to be underestimated by everyone already possessed of power.
We had seen him walk the tightrope of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall (Jonathan Pryce, combining the charisma and outlandish tastes of this earthiest of clerics). We had watched him change the course of English history, twinning his own spiritual beliefs with a king’s carnal desires (Rylance’s face almost vulpine in the low light as he seized the opportunity presented by Henry’s guilt and weakness for Anne). We marvelled as he eroded the influence of anyone who presented an obstacle.
None more so than in the case of Thomas More (Anton Lesser, never better): an intellectual giant forced to relinquish his grip on the moral high ground, finger by finger, oblivious to the danger he was placing himself in until it was too late.
Perhaps Wolf Hall’s biggest flaw was that, for many, this will have been the dramatic high point. What remained for the achingly bleak closing episode was to experience the price that power exacted from Cromwell in turn. Here for the first time he was less hero, more enigma as he clinically arranged the dispatch of his former ally Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), suddenly, shockingly disposable after failing once again to produce a male heir for Henry.
If Foy’s petulant portrayal of Anne never entirely convinced us of her irresistible appeal to a king, it certainly helped elucidate the rapidity of her downfall. There was never any doubt that this flirtatious, self-adoring Anne was partly the architect of her own undoing. That it was impossible not to feel sympathy for her at the same time was a considerable achievement.
Another was the manner in which it preserved the novelist’s sense that while we, the audience, may know some of this story already in outline, the central characters lived their lives in the present tense with no awareness of their roles in the great sweep of history.
Thus we left Cromwell staring into the abyss, horror mingling with admiration for his ability to unite, at a stroke, the king’s murderous wish for freedom with his own icy desire for vengeance on those responsible for Wolsey’s demise.
But what did it profit him? Rylance’s performance trusted us to draw our own conclusions. A production that brought the small, inward-looking universe of the Tudor court vividly to life before our eyes. This was thanks in no small part to the superb cast. But also to the extraordinary richness of costume, décor and setting. The scintillating candlelight, iridescent silks and warm furs. The luxuries of a time before comfort as we know it. Even gestures and manners were faithfully reproduced (how often does something as mundane as the doffing of caps arouse notice and debate?).
It used to be the preserve of cinema to present us with such grand, sumptuous, finely detailed visualisations. Filming technology and larger TV screens have made it possible to reproduce the effect in our own homes. Wolf Hall was a rare example of a TV series that made the most of everything at its disposal, from the murky complexity of its source material to the translucent beauty of light falling through windows. It delivered an overwhelming sense of the fascination of history.
“probably the best drama on tv in years. Lets have more of this please, superb acting by Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis. Bravo”
” Damian Lewis convincingly scary as the monster Henry. Best telly in ages.”
“I’ve said before my fav TV series is Band of Brothers but I think it’s been usurped by Wolf Hall just stunning. & both star Damian Lewis!”
With Wolf Hall’s final episode, Masters of Phantoms, we have a conclusion in which, as Scott put it at the end of Waverley, nothing is concluded. With this adaptation, of course, there is the added complication that Hilary Mantel has yet to publish The Mirror and The Light, the third part of her great historical romance. One looks forward to it with rather more eagerness than the newly announced third series of Broadchurch.
Cromwell has, over the years covered by the narrative, become less sympathetic. There is blood on his hands – a bucketful by the end of this episode. But, as ever, he evades any charge of being downright despicable (as, for example, Henry most certainly is). However shredded his scruples may be, Thomas Cromwell remains, in his own peculiar way, scrupulous.
There is, for example, a haunting scene in which Thomas lies in bed in his house in Stepney. It is dark – inevitably. There are horrible screams preventing him sleep. Somewhere, below, a foolish young man is being tormented.
One historical account records that Mark Smeaton had his eyes pressed to jelly with knotted cords. Another account records his being racked, in the Tower, to perjuriously confess his adultery and name other foolish young men (Norris, Brereton, Weston), of less “inferior” rank than him. But Thomas has merely instructed Smeaton be “shown the instruments” adding, “I don’t want him hurt”.
That and subtle interrogation are enough. (The episode thereafter forgets Smeaton, who was not spared, as Thomas hinted he might be, for falsely informing). History’s Cromwell, one imagines, might have been more brutal and keener on the eyeball business.
Here, we watch Thomas carry out the ruthless demands of a monarch whose hands must appear clean. It means, for Cromwell, transgressing the law and Christian morality. For what?
There was something clear-cut and filial about Cromwell’s loyalty to Wolsey. But Henry? Why does he does he serve the monarch so loyally – to advance the “house of Cromwell?” But entitlement has, to this point, been slow coming. To enrich himself ? But he’s already wealthy: “I am a banker,” he replies, with a rare smile, when prodded about his religion. Raisons d’etat – England Expects? Or because, at this stage of his career, he has no more autonomy over what he does than a backrow piece on the chessboard.
No need to ask who the player moving the pieces is. Henry has no more than a hundred words, and a few minutes on screen, in this episode. He does not speak until the episode is 20 minutes through. But it is the will of the king that drives the events. No need for words.
The episode opens, as the usual placard tells us, in 1536, with a banquet, given by Cromwell. The diners are “famished”. The scene transmutes into nightmare. The body of Anne is dragged along the table, like a suckling pig. Her eyes are open. At the head of the table, Thomas picks up a carving knife and plunges it into her.
The scene, without pause, transmutes again to the Cromwell breakfast table. He plays with his food. Is he history’s cannibal? We move to another domestic scene. Anne, dandling Elizabeth (“Dumpling” as her father has earlier named her) on her knee. Henry, lolling in an armchair, picks his teeth and leaves without a word. He is immune to domestic charm. At least, with Anne Boleyn.
After he has gone, Anne accuses Thomas, the ever-present silent bystander, of treachery. “I cannot hold the throne for an unborn baby,” he replies. Anne threatens him angrily: she has made him and “those who’ve been made can be unmade”. He replies, quietly, “I entirely agree.” A certain wife can be unmade. But how?
The marriage crisis has created opportunities. Cromwell is solicited by the “True Faith” party. Once the King marries the Seymour girl, England can be brought back to Rome. Cromwell evades the invitation.
Anne, meanwhile, is laying the path for her own downfall. She flirts, coquettishly, with her courtiers. She insults her infatuated lutanist, Smeaton (“you’re an inferior person”). She insults her sister, Mary. Most dangerously, she not only insults, but slaps, her sister-in-law, Jane. For a woman who will desperately need allies in the struggle to come, it is reckless, verging on suicidal, behaviour.
Still smarting from the slap, it is Jane who drips the necessary poison into Thomas’s ear. Anne seduced the king with her “French” practices (anal intercourse, she explains, to a somewhat bemused Thomas). Her husband, George, she says has had incestuous relations with Anne. Why? Because the king cannot reproduce, and were she to choose one of her entourage Anne’s child might look like another man: “You can’t call it a bastard if it looks like a Boleyn.”
Do you want me to record that? asks an incredulous Cromwell. Apparently yes. Her last advice: “speak to Mark Smeaton”.
At Stepney one night (the fire is brighter than the candles), the luckless lutanist is flattered, before witnesses, into boastful indiscretion and then “enforced” into naming names. The future history of England pivots on the lies of a foolish boy.
And why does Thomas do it? “She won’t go quietly. She has to be pushed and I have to push her.” Quietly would presumably mean the same fate of her predecessor, Catherine: to be locked away in some remote castle to rot her life away.
A montage of arrests and interrogations of Anne’s alleged lovers follows. Cromwell contrives to weave falsehood into a case, again without “too much” hurt. Heads will, of course, roll – but in this world the sword is mercy killing. And Thomas, in his way, is scrupulous.
There is a trial, sham throughout, and Anne is charged and found guilty. There is an odd moment of intimacy, as Thomas takes the Queen’s hand to conduct her to captivity. It’s like opponents shaking hands, winner and loser, after a game.
In the most powerful one-on-one scene Thomas instructs Anne in the endgame. “You can do something for your daughter,” he counsels. Anne duly swears allegiance to her cruel spouse on the scaffold: “God save the King; gentler, no more merciful king was there ever.”
The episode climaxes with her extended decapitation. No “block”, no axe, but a sword, which Cromwell handles, thoughtfully, before passing it on to the nimble French executioner.
The last scene shows Cromwell walking, in slow motion, down a long, brightly lit corridor. At the end stands a smiling Henry, arms spread wide. He embraces his servant like a lover. The camera lingers on Thomas’s eyes. He has it now. But can he keep it?
“And Henry VIII has a big happy smile, because his wife’s just been executed. Proper psycho. Damian Lewis has been excellent”
“Damian Lewis is always amazing”
“was not expecting that samurai execution in Wolf Hall. And Damian Lewis’ psychopath smile. Brrrr.”
” Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance and the whole cast have been impeccable! Best BBC drama ever”
However, before the royal head could be lopped from its regal shoulders, evidence was needed. Well, ‘evidence’. This is Cromwell after all. The naughty gallants who had lain with Anne (and a few who’d just glanced at her portrait in a corridor) were rounded up, mainly on the say so of sister-in-law Jane Boleyn (Jessica Raine) and via the confession of ‘pretty boy’ Mark Smeaton (and, no, the Duke of Norfolk did not refuse the opportunity to crack a gag about fingering lutes). Jane even incriminated her own husband George, the Queen’s brother. They kiss with tongues, Jane says. ‘Do you want me to record that?’ asked an incredulous Cromwell. ‘If you think you’ll forget it’ sniffed Jane. She was deadly serious.
The trial, which resembled an especially downbeat Mason’s initiation ceremony (all hats and candles and gout), was a sham. Anne got to understand how betrayed she had been by literally everyone, and the bravado of her alleged lovers drained as they too grasped the situation. ‘’I need guilty men’ Cromwell had told Harry Norris. ‘So I’ve found men who are guilty.’ Guilty of? Of adultery with the Queen. Of insulting Cardinal Wolsey. Of looking at Cromwell funny. Of being in the way.
Before Anne’s dramatic haircut, Cromwell walked the gallows himself (historical spoiler alert) and made sure the executioner hadn’t forgotten anything. He seemed haunted. In the final moments, caught in the suddenly single Henry’s triumphant bear hug, he was shattered. This was simply brilliant television
Wolf Hall concludes its Superlative Series!!
A TV show that can make its audience feel every shaking, terrible moment of a death so muffled by historical wadding that it’s now more playground rhyme than human drama is something to cherish. And something to miss like a brother now that it’s gone.
Wolf Hall made Anne Boleyn’s beheading so rightly, wretchedly real that we could have been watching an online video of one of its horrendous modern day counterparts. With none of Debbie Wiseman’s delicately intuitive score to accompany Anne’s journey to the scaffold, deliberately, you could barely hear her final words over the sound of wind and flapping cloth. Director Peter Kosminsky positioned the audience as an onlooker in the crowd, complicit in an execution we all knew was coming, but that somehow came as a shock nevertheless.
All praise to Claire Foy in the role of Anne, who should properly be considered the joint lead of Wolf Hall’s final episodes. It was a work of alchemy that Foy managed to make Anne monstrous and pathetic at the same time. Her spite and arrogance toppled so quickly into desperation and panic when she realised her mistake in publicly speaking of remarriage after Henry’s death (“Get him back”) that you couldn’t rejoice in her cold, hard death. Who could smile broadly and open their arms in a celebrative embrace after something like that?
Well, he could, obviously, the real monster of Wolf Hall.
Damien Lewis pulled off a similar trick to Foy with Henry VIII over these half-dozen episodes, transitioning from sympathetic to tyrannical with each instalment. Disdainfully picking his teeth or clasping his serpent to his breast in the final scene, Henry was twice as hateable as Anne this week. In pursuit of power, she bullied, connived and – in all likelihood – fornicated in the restricted circles allowed to her. In pursuit of pleasure, he trampled over laws and lives, rewriting history to suit him as he went.
Unchecked power and entitlement are dangerous things, Wolf Hall teaches. Leaders, the one-percent, and international banks take note. (Wouldn’t it be lovely if it was as easy as that? If we could simply air-drop DVDs of meaningful historical drama into financial districts and battlefields the world over then watch all the baddies absorb their lessons and start to behave.)
Back to the sixteenth century, where Cromwell finally exacted his promised revenge on Wolsey’s enemies by implicating them in Anne’s downfall. “Madam, nothing here is personal” he told the Queen. Keep lying, Crum.
Coercing those “guilty men” into giving evidence against Anne showed Cromwell at his most serpent-like this series. Flattering, threatening and eventually psychologically torturing Mark Smeaton (the lute player who’d crowed over the fall of “the old man” in episode one, remember) and taking down those who’d enacted the cruel play on Wolsey’s admission to hell, was entirely personal. Mark Rylance may not be a demonstrative Cromwell, but his character seethes with personal vendetta underneath that glass-still surface.
Word counts and attention spans preclude us from listing each individual joy to be found in that cast, but take it as read that we’d be lucky to see a better ensemble anywhere. In short, they were tremendous, so were the scripts, direction, design and quite possibly, the on-set catering and Portaloos.
From the first moment we followed Rylance up those stone steps to that last, loaded embrace with Henry (to which he walked in slow-motion as if Cromwell didn’t want it to end as much as the rest of us), Wolf Hall been rich, sustaining, substantial stuff. Don’t mess us about now BBC, let’s have another series please. Or do we have to send Cromwell’s boys round?