Thursday, 26 February 2015

Wolf Hall: TV Review

“Wolf Hall” is a very dark drama, not least because it makes no concessions to modern lighting, and uses tallow candles to light buildings as much as it would have been done. The half glimpsed silhouettes show us a world full of flickering shadows and light.

The core performance has to be Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. Very much a man of the world, he builds spiders webs by his network of spies to entrap the unwary, and is first and foremost, set to do his master’s bidding – that is, the wishes of Henry VIII.

There’s a certain motivation in him for revenge on those who brought about the fall and destruction of his former master, Cardinal Wolsey, and it is interesting that it is Anne Boleyn, not Cromwell, who seeks to put Thomas More’s name on the list of those who supported Elizabeth Barton in her prophecy against the King. Cromwell knows More is innocent of this, and contrives a way around Anne’s wishes in the matter.

Cromwell has for so long been portrayed as the schemer, the nasty piece of work, the henchman doing Henry VIII’s bidding. Having Leo McKern play Cromwell in “A Man for All Seasons”, and Donald Pleasance play him in “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” make him very much a villain, and in the case of Pleasance’s performance, almost a cardboard villain.

Rylance’s Cromwell is an altogether more subtle character, with feeling and religious sensibilities. He won’t put Thomas More on a list, because he knows that More is innocent of that crime. And yet he still frames legislation that needs an oath of loyalty to the King, which traps all those who have integrity and doubts, including More. He doesn’t like torture, and prefers his network of informers, but he’s still prepared to let More be executed, partly at his contrivance.

One of the best scenes was after Henry had fallen from his horse, and just recovered – Cromwell hitting him in the chest to get his heart beating is effective, but probably fictitious – and Cromwell discusses how things might have been with Master Treasurer Fitzwilliam. It’s the lull after the storm, a reflective two-hander that is a delight to watch, as each displays scepticism about the other’s views.

It appears that Henry did suffer some kind of brain damage as a result of the fall, when he was unconscious for nearly two hours. As Michael McMarthy notes, “the king, once sporty and generous, became cruel, vicious and paranoid”.

This slightly unhinged King was well brought out by Damian Lewis, who suddenly turns on Anne, when she calls upon the King to give up jousting for the sake of the Kingdom, and he says “Do you wish to geld me too, Madam”.

Throughout the series, the shadows are lengthening, and in the final episode we saw Cromwell acting against Anne Boleyn, on behalf of the King. He threatens violence, but doesn’t use it, but the threat itself of violence, unrecorded, and the dark cells of the Tower are enough to get enough confessions.

The King needs guilty people, and Cromwell is not fussy about the truth of the accusations. It is enough that those accused are guilty men, guilty of past crimes, although, as Cromwell states, not necessarily those crimes they are accused of. He needed to find enough guilty men to satisfy Henry.  It is also a chance for him to settle old scores against those who brought down and mocked Wolsey.

Claire Foy as Anne gives a brilliant performance, haughty and often cruel as the Queen, but suddenly aware of how vulnerable she is, and taken to the tower. Her trial, when she answers “No” to all the questions, goes well until she is forced to say “Yes” to giving money to one of her alleged suitors. She realises in an instance that answer will seal her fate.

Her speech and trembling final prayers were extremely fraught, and we saw the executioner swing the sword, and heard the thump as it severed the head, but rightly this was more effective in not showing it. We are shown the reaction of the spectators, and we should not forget that executions were very much a spectator sport. Would people watch today if there was still public hanging?

I think the culture has shifted from the 1960s when the death penalty was removed from the statute books as a mark of a civilised society, and today’s population, brought on a diet of visual atrocities from war zones, coupled with the desensitising effects of sadistic shows like “I’m a celebrity” would probably pay to watch. Our world has become crueller than it was; closer to the Tudors.

Was she guilty? What mattered to the Henry and Cromwell was that she should be found to be guilty. Executions had to be conducted by due process of law, and Cromwell showed himself adept at manipulating events within the limits of the law. And yet even there is a touch of compassion: he knows that Anne is beyond saving, but he asks her to be contrite and confess so that he can try to safeguard her daughter Elizabeth.

Archbishop Cramner does not come out of this well. He finds it incredible that the accusations should be true, yet as it is the King accusing Anne, he says that it must be true because Henry would not act if there was not sufficient evidence to prove Anne unfaithful. Under Edward VI, of course, he was in his element pushing forward the Reformation agenda, but under Queen Mary, he recanted of his past.

Cramner only seems to have finally found a courage that eluded him when he realised that his recantation was not going to save him from burning, and then he retracted his confession, and thrust the hand which had signed the document into the flames. History is full of “what ifs”, and I cannot help wondering what might have happened if he had been quietly pensioned off after a very public retraction rather than sentenced to death.

Cromwell, in the end, is greeted by Henry, his master for doing his bidding. But he knows he is caught in a trap from which he cannot extricate himself, and sooner or later, the same fate which others suffered may well be his too. And he has changed, in this telling of the story, from one who sought to support the King but act, according to his lights, justly, to someone who will use any legal means to achieve his ends, whether they are, in fact, just or not. Legally, everything is done with due process, but morally, he has been in the process of selling his soul to the devil.

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