This review contains spoilers.
1.3 Anna Regina
The best historical drama finds the modernity in our past. It doesn’t treat history as another country, peopled by strange, unknowable natives dressed in outlandish gear and spouting even more outlandish attitudes. Neither does it make a pastiche of the past, using dramatic irony to mock our ancestors’ stupidity and failures. It certainly doesn’t shred its world-building by endlessly commenting on its fulcrum-of-history position (“I’m off to polish the bouillon spoons, Mrs Patmore, not that this new government dismantling the aristocratic classes will have need of those in future [shakes head] It wasn’t like this before the War” and so on).
No, the best historical drama, like the best drama of any genre, simply reveals us to ourselves. Mad Men does it, I Claudius does it, Deadwood does it, and Wolf Hall does it.
(The modern perspective’s a tricky one anyway. To himself, a sixteenth century politician or a 1960s ad man is every bit as modern a character as we are. And really, how far can a country in which “plagues of black-eyed ghost children” find their way onto the front pages of a national newspaper judge anyone as being premodern?)
The politics of arse-covering was the major theme of episode three – what more apt subject in an election year? As fortunes changed in the Tudor court following England’s break with Rome, the world of Wolf Hall was divided. Not just into the ayes and the noes of Henry’s bill, but also into those unwilling to bend their beliefs to protect their careers and lives, and those pragmatic enough to – in the words of Anne Boleyn – “say whatever to keep themselves alive”.
Into which camp does Cromwell fall? Anne and Thomas More think they know, the latter suggesting that our man would “serve the Sultan if the price was right”. One answer came from Cromwell’s frustration with More, Tyndale and barrister Bainham, none of whom were willing to “bend a point of principle” for their own survival.
Political expedience trumps conviction in Cromwell’s case, making him perhaps the most modern politician we’ve seen on screen since The Thick Of It (which, incidentally, would make a very good companion piece to Wolf Hall. The swearing’s getting almost as good at any rate, thanks to the bollock-biting Duke of Norfolk and his thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus).
That’s only half the story though. Was Cromwell only interested in courting the King’s favour, he would have left Wolsey when Stephen Gardiner did. His loyalty to the Cardinal, and his antipathy for those who hounded him to death, is unwavering. As is his fierce protectiveness of his family (“If Thomas More came near you, I’d drag him…”). That shows the depth of the portrait Wolf Hall is painting of Cromwell. It doesn’t just show us a pragmatist who knows on which side his bread’s buttered, but also a man of deeply held conviction. And this week – as that fantasy of caressing Anne’s neckline demonstrated – a man of frustrated desires.
Not quite as frustrated as Henry, it should be said. Anne’s negotiations with the King were a fascination of episode three. Claire Foy and Charity Wakefield are doing excellent work as the Boleyn sisters, one selling herself inch by inch and the other providing a devilish commentary on how the deal’s progressing.
Wolf Hall is extremely smart on the narrowness of court life for women. Just as Cromwell, that son of an honest blacksmith, had to pull himself up through the ranks using his wits, so Anne had to do the same using her chief power – desirability. Gloating and brattish as she’s been (nowhere more so than that entertainingly furious dance in Calais), she’s not an unsympathetic character.
That’s where hindsight really works for a series like Wolf Hall, in creating pathos. Our knowledge of Anne’s fate made her and her naïve promise that “when [her] son is born, they’ll all be powerless”, pitiful, in the first sense of the word. Anne’s value henceforth depends entirely on a quirk of genetics entirely outside of her control. Lose your footing in the careful transaction of virginity, desirability, and providing male heirs and what are the choices for a woman like Anne? A nunnery or the chopping block.
Sympathy is an interesting question for this episode, which saw Cromwell’s underdog become top dog. It’s easy to back a scrapping parvenu, but how easy is it to like a Cromwell who’s not in opposition, but in power? A Cromwell in his late forties pursuing women half his age? Worse than that for a post-financial crisis audience, how easy is it to like a (whisper it) banker?
Pretty easy, if screenwriter Peter Straughan keeps putting speeches in his mouth like that marvellous one he gave to Henry Percy. “The world is not run from where you think it is” was Cromwell’s “I am the one who knocks”. Who’d have thought a monologue on Tudor economics could make for such riveting TV? Luscious stuff.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Entirely Beloved, here.
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