The Tudor drama has the best ensemble cast in years, says Gabriel Tate
4 stars out of 5
Anyone grumbling that Wolf Hall (BBC Two) has been a bit slow should have been sated by a penultimate episode cramming in a tournament, a murder, a miscarriage, possible arson, a blowing of the royal top and more award-winning eyebrow work from the magnificent Mark Rylance. While the latter has understandably hogged the limelight, his supporting players continue to prove themselves the finest ensemble assembled for a TV drama in years. Wan, twitchy Jessica Raine is a wonderfully slippery Jane Rochford, Mark Gatiss dripped poison in another tantalising cameo as Stephen Gardiner, and Bernard Hill’s glare on discovering the King had survived a jousting mishap (and therefore torpedoed Lord Norfolk’s loudly proclaimed wish to be crowned regent) would have frozen over the hell where Cardinal Wolsey was presumably residing.
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), meanwhile, began her unwitting slide toward the scaffold. While the precariousness of her predicament was gradually dawning on her, she remained incapable of curbing either her inveterate scheming or tendency to overplay her hand. Her dog was the latest to pay the price, falling from a high ledge. “Perhaps his paws slipped?” suggested Cromwell. Where’s CJ Sansom’s Tudor detective Matthew Shardlake when you need him?
Wolf Hall is television drama as photographic negative, shadows and concealed expressions its primary components. The emotions, however, are anything but monochrome, modulated by Rylance’s impeccable underplaying at its beating heart. Although his reaction to inaccurate reports of Henry’s death was a touch too discreet (“Ah”), Cromwell’s subsequent rapid-fire recalibration of the nation’s future, mob teeming around the comatose monarch, was an object lesson in authority and control.
Ditto his handling of the king who, having complained with mounting irritation of being treated “like an infant”, demonstrated why with a magnificent tantrum that was perhaps history’s earliest recorded example of the Alex Ferguson hairdryer. Cromwell stood his ground, only later revealing his suppressed terror in a quiet corner. It was a strategy that later bore fruit when Henry made clumsy amends with some cracking chat about ironmongery. Alchemy would have been a better topic. This is gold-standard drama.