The tense third episode of the BBC’s Wolf Hall confirmed it as a stellar political drama, says Tim Martin
The gloves had to come off at some point. The third episode of Wolf Hall (BBC Two) opened as Thomas More (Anton Lesser) primly delivered a homily to a Protestant heretic under torture. Cut to Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell, gazing at a tapestry of a woman with fire under her feet and a sword at her throat. Cut again to Cromwell, in audience with Anne Boleyn herself. By this stage in the drama the queen-in-waiting (Claire Foy) was playing a dangerous game, but, tragically, straying out of her depth.
Director Peter Kosminsky and writer Peter Straughan may be filleting Hilary Mantel’s source novels to fit them into six episodes, but they are doing a great job of keeping the books’ bleak suggestiveness, their ear for things not spoken. When Cromwell asked Anne to intercede on behalf of a prisoner, she gave him a telling reply: “People should say whatever will keep them alive.”
Wolf Hall is getting better, and darker, with each episode. (Darker in both senses, in fact: I love the Barry Lyndon candlelight in the night scenes but if your LCD television struggles to render dark tones, beware.) As Cromwell floats up the ranks of Henry’s court, Mark Rylance shows us the steel behind his sorrowful Holbein gaze and the measured, civil tones. “If Thomas More came anywhere near you,” he promised one of his lieutenants, “I’d drag him out of his court and beat his head on the cobbles of Westminster.” When a hapless courtier stumbled across Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) about to kiss Cromwell in the dark – a plotline given rather more emphasis in this adaptation than in the book – our solemn councillor had a knife at the intruder’s throat before you could blink. And when Anne’s toffish former suitor Harry Percy (Harry Lloyd) tried to make trouble, Cromwell gave him short shrift. “The world is not run from where you think it is,” he said, looking almost sad.
This episode ended with More sacked, Anne crowned and excommunication lurking around the corner for Damian Lewis’s brilliantly wooden, strutting Henry. Straughan and Kosminsky have shunted a lot of historical detail to the side – so much that at times I wondered if the series presumes too heavily on our knowledge of the period. No matter; this is stellar political drama, with a thrillingly delicate feel for the weight of words. “I was always desired,” said Anne at the end. “But now I’m valued, you see. And that’s different.”