This review contains spoilers.
The jousting match at the centre of this episode wasn’t only a turning point in Henry’s reign, but as useful a metaphor for this combative time and place in history as you could want. Wolf Hall’s penultimate hour demonstrated how easily its political jousters could be unseated, and in particular how precariously positioned Cromwell was in the saddle.
He wasn’t the only one. Claire Foy continues to breathe sparking vitality into the role of Anne Boleyn, whose candle is soon to be snuffed out. How Foy manages to arouse sympathy for the furious, bitter and vengeful character Mantel and Straughan have put on the page is unknowable, but God, she does it. Blame witchcraft. That, or her eyes, which betray Anne’s terror, even when her mouth is spitting out threats and boasts. Terrified is just how it must feel for your life to depend entirely upon your indifferent body keeping hold of such fragile things.
Fragility and volatility were the moods of episode five. In the space of one royal heartbeat, Cromwell’s security shattered. Without his one friend in the world and unprotected by highborn ancestry, our self-made man was momentarily exposed. Thumping the life back into Henry (Casualty eat your heart out) stayed Cromwell’s execution, but as we saw this week, the unique friendship he relies upon isn’t as robust as it needs to be.
The Seymours were right: the game has changed. Wolf Hall’s audience is no longer watching Cromwell cleverly outmanoeuvring his opponents, we’re watching him try to outrun defeat. No wonder he keeps a knife up his sleeve. It’s a survival match, and we all know what his odds are.
That should have made for a sombre episode, but the hour being packed with more incident than any of the previous chapters made it feel brisk and tense, not moribund. Granted, Mark Rylance would still burn more calories asleep than when playing his brilliantly measured, watchful Cromwell (imagine being able to command all that fascination simply by exhaling. Can telly keep him, theatre? Pretty please?), but there was plenty of action elsewhere.
Most of it was thanks to Damian Lewis, whose role as the capricious Henry has expanded since episode one at pace with his character’s waistline. However good Foy, Rylance and Jessica Raine as the viperish Lady Rochford were, Lewis was the star of this hour. Whether falling for Jane Seymour, gasping back to life, giving Cromwell the hairdryer treatment, wheedling for another escape route from another failing marriage, or sheepishly trying to make amends with his ‘right-hand man’, Lewis was utterly convincing.
Henry’s cavalier lack of concern for his young jousting opponent when shaking off Cromwell’s plea for leniency to his son – “when you’re thundering down at a man, you can’t check” – was perhaps the character’s most revealing moment. Not dramatic as his verbal assault on Cromwell, and not as pathetic as his overtures of love to Jane Seymour (and her expertly stage-managed responses), but it demonstrated the danger of an impetuous temper being shored up by a belief in the divine right. How many heads did Henry chop off because he failed to check when “thundering down at a man” – or woman, for that matter? How many of those would he live to regret?
Speaking of Cardinal Wolsey, Jonathan Pryce’s welcome cameo served as a reminder that Henry’s already enacted this particular play. His relationship with Cromwell is Wolsey mark two – a once trusted advisor accused of acting above his station who lost the King’s favour. Wolf Hall presents Wolsey’s downfall as the dumbshow prelude to Cromwell’s own fate. The Cardinal’s ghost casts a long shadow over these later episodes.
And so the story deepens while the politics remain as fresh as ever. (This week’s depressing ‘plus ca change’ moment came courtesy of the hypocrisy and abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. “You didn’t find the Apostles feeling each other’s’ bollocks, did you?” – Crum channelling the Duke of Norfolk’s colourful mode of expression, there.) We had a dead dog, a mostly dead king, a funeral, a miscarriage, an assassination attempt, and at the heart of it all, the captivating presence of Thomas Cromwell, a dead man walking.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, The Devil’s Spit, here.
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