Was King Henry VIII’s second wife a sly mistress, ambitious hussy or doomed pawn in Tudor power games? Claire Foy’s magnetic portrayal in Wolf Hall left viewers thinking all of these things
For all the praise heaped upon Mark Rylance’s deserving shoulders for his beautifully subdued performance in Wolf Hall, less has been said about Claire Foy, the poised and emotionally complex Anne Boleyn he finally had executed in last night’s superb conclusion.
What did we think we knew about Anne before this series? In my mind she was a fusion of every painting, film and TV adaptation I’d seen on the subject, and there have been many. She was a six-fingered sorceress and trollop who seduced the married king, slept with her own brother, was wrongly accused of sleeping with her own brother, a pawn in a deadly game of Tudor chess, and an arch manipulator who pulled the king of England around by his codpiece, issuing instructions and forcing him to dump the Pope. Somewhere in there lies the truth.
In Foy’s firmly clasped hands she was ambitious. Spoiled and determined, certainly, but from the moment we met her, Anne was a woman desperately trying to keep her grip on an oily rope. Foy’s total assurance as she navigated scene after scene in which she was barely given more than two or three lines was dazzling. She didn’t need words to convey that inner bubbling tar barrel of fear and desperation; it all came burning through her eyes. It’s hard to look at anyone else in a scene with her because those eyes always pull you back.
And when you’re playing opposite the most self-contained, intuitive actor this country has yet produced (Rylance), you have to boil all emotion, intent and truth down to a single concentrated droplet in every exchange. While Damian Lewis’s King Henry didn’t always succeed in this, Foy’s Anne was a muted powerhouse of forward-motion, constantly reminding Cromwell that it was she who kept him in the King’s favour once he’d reluctantly agreed to support their marriage.
“I promoted you. I am responsible for your rise,” she quietly spat at him in the final episode. Shortly afterwards she could be seen finally breaking her almost smug self-containment to tearfully plead with him. It was the briefest lapse, then she returned to the curt smiles and kept counsel: the only drop in her countenance that hinted at the terror of a young woman heading for her near and certain doom.
In the court scenes where Anne was tried for adultery, the exchanges between Foy and Rylance were hypnotic. He refused eye contact as he read out the list of charges, and she remained stony as she offered denial after denial. When she realised he had committed some jiggery-pokery with the statute book allowing her to avoid death by burning in favour of the more merciful beheading, her eyes transmitted multiple emotions in the space of a few seconds: relief, terror, gratitude. How does an actor even begin to take their performance to such a level that a single moment tells you everything so economically?
Foy’s star has risen steadily since she played the title role in the BBC’s adaptation of Little Dorrit in 2008 and I loved her in BBC Two’s White Heat in 2012 alongside Sam Claflin, MyAnna Buring and Lee Ingleby. Her sophisticated and gutsy approach to Tudor tragedy has only served to remind me what a magnetic performer she is. I sit on the edge of my sofa, waiting to see what she does next.