The second episode of the BBC’s Wolf Hall was a dizzying spectacle, says Jasper Rees
We’re now two hours in and, with a mass of plot to get through, Wolf Hall (BBC Two) is still in no hurry. Though adapted from a wordy source, it has a world of time for silence, for the pregnant spaces between speeches, in which everything and nothing is said.
It goes without saying that Mark Rylance is a master at withholding. In this second episode, both Boleyn girls – poor, pleading Mary (Charity Wakefield) and fearsome, frustrated Anne (Claire Foy) – looked into Thomas Cromwell’s green eyes and waited for the flicker of a response. Only the king got answers, and even he was told what Cromwell wanted him to hear. When the king’s dead brother Arthur visited him in a dream, Cromwell was summoned in the night to put a positive spin on the vision.
The relationship between Cromwell and Henry VIII has grown intimate. As Rylance hovered in the tall shadow of Damian Lewis, not presuming to look him in the eye, was anyone else reminded of The Fast Show’s vertical bromance between Charlie Higson’s diffident country gent and Paul Whitehouse’s wary yokel? Except that here Rylance is performing the seduction, and we’re caught in his web.
The only one with any sway over Cromwell is his sister-in-law Johane (Saskia Reeves). In their understated scenes he sits exposed. “There’s a conversation I shouldn’t have had,” he berated himself after inquiring about her marriage. Soon they were kissing, putting Cromwell in a good enough mood to share anecdotes from his years in Italy. No wonder his boisterous young entourage crowded around.
So far director Peter Kosminsky and scriptwriter Peter Straughan have arranged the narrative as, more or less, a series of conversational jousts. It’s like watching a chess grandmaster go around a room playing 20 challengers at once. The spectacle is dizzying, and the acting magnificent. By the end, as Cromwell was sworn into the Privy Council, the prospect loomed of taking God’s vengeance for Wolsey’s humiliation.
“There’s no need to trouble God,” he muttered. “I’ll take it in hand.” Be warned. In one beautiful tableau Johane snuffed out a roomful of candles. Next week, it won’t be her doing the snuffing.