Wolf Hall concludes its superlative series with an episode that makes historical tragedy come alive…
This review contains spoilers.
1.6 Master Of Phantoms
A TV show that can make its audience feel every shaking, terrible moment of a death so muffled by historical wadding that it’s now more playground rhyme than human drama is something to cherish. And something to miss like a brother now that it’s gone.
Wolf Hall made Anne Boleyn’s beheading so rightly, wretchedly real that we could have been watching an online video of one of its horrendous modern day counterparts. With none of Debbie Wiseman’s delicately intuitive score to accompany Anne’s journey to the scaffold, deliberately, you could barely hear her final words over the sound of wind and flapping cloth. Director Peter Kosminsky positioned the audience as an onlooker in the crowd, complicit in an execution we all knew was coming, but that somehow came as a shock nevertheless.
All praise to Claire Foy in the role of Anne, who should properly be considered the joint lead of Wolf Hall’s final episodes. It was a work of alchemy that Foy managed to make Anne monstrous and pathetic at the same time. Her spite and arrogance toppled so quickly into desperation and panic when she realised her mistake in publicly speaking of remarriage after Henry’s death (“Get him back”) that you couldn’t rejoice in her cold, hard death. Who could smile broadly and open their arms in a celebrative embrace after something like that?
Well, he could, obviously, the real monster of Wolf Hall.
Damien Lewis pulled off a similar trick to Foy with Henry VIII over these half-dozen episodes, transitioning from sympathetic to tyrannical with each instalment. Disdainfully picking his teeth or clasping his serpent to his breast in the final scene, Henry was twice as hateable as Anne this week. In pursuit of power, she bullied, connived and – in all likelihood – fornicated in the restricted circles allowed to her. In pursuit of pleasure, he trampled over laws and lives, rewriting history to suit him as he went.
Unchecked power and entitlement are dangerous things, Wolf Hall teaches. Leaders, the one-percent, and international banks take note. (Wouldn’t it be lovely if it was as easy as that? If we could simply air-drop DVDs of meaningful historical drama into financial districts and battlefields the world over then watch all the baddies absorb their lessons and start to behave.)
Back to the sixteenth century, where Cromwell finally exacted his promised revenge on Wolsey’s enemies by implicating them in Anne’s downfall. “Madam, nothing here is personal” he told the Queen. Keep lying, Crum.
Coercing those “guilty men” into giving evidence against Anne showed Cromwell at his most serpent-like this series. Flattering, threatening and eventually psychologically torturing Mark Smeaton (the lute player who’d crowed over the fall of “the old man” in episode one, remember) and taking down those who’d enacted the cruel play on Wolsey’s admission to hell, was entirely personal. Mark Rylance may not be a demonstrative Cromwell, but his character seethes with personal vendetta underneath that glass-still surface.
Word counts and attention spans preclude us from listing each individual joy to be found in that cast, but take it as read that we’d be lucky to see a better ensemble anywhere. In short, they were tremendous, so were the scripts, direction, design and quite possibly, the on-set catering and Portaloos.
From the first moment we followed Rylance up those stone steps to that last, loaded embrace with Henry (to which he walked in slow-motion as if Cromwell didn’t want it to end as much as the rest of us), Wolf Hall been rich, sustaining, substantial stuff. Don’t mess us about now BBC, let’s have another series please. Or do we have to send Cromwell’s boys round?