1531. Two years have passed since our last visit to Wolf Hall and the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel has become bolder, almost Tarantino-esque in its entertainment. Here, between all the pageantry and dresses, there is violence, there is revenge and, most of all, there is sex.
Our outing begins with Thomas More reciting Latin, while torturing one of Cromwell’s men – Bainham. The room is dark, as we’ve come to expect from director Peter Kosminsky’s natural lighting. But there is a stark shift in tone as the episode continues; just as Cromwell is becoming more overtly powerful, the camera steps out of the shadows too, building up to the white extravagance of Henry and Anne’s wedding.
“I did not think he would send a man like you,” laments Catherine, when Cromwell arrives to inform her that a bill is about to be put to Parliament to make Henry head of the Church of England and give him the authority to divorce her. Cromwell is kind, helping the ill Princess Mary to a chair, but he cannot hide a trace of a smirk; a new air of authority.
He’s not the only thing about the show that’s getting more confident, though. Peter Straughan’s careful plotting and condensing is tighter and more effective than ever, jumping in immediately with a big signpost that says “Thomas More is bad”, before setting up the bill as a heist-like mission that must be carried out in time.
People are whipped into line, others are noted for their dissent – hello to Mark Gatiss’ wonderfully acerbic Stephen Gardiner – and through it all, Cromwell swans about with a tube of important papers. It’s not long until he manoeuvres his way into the role of master of jewels, courtesy of Ms. Boleyn.
Throughout his encounters, Kosminsky serves up flashbacks to the humiliating taunts thrown at the deceased Wolsey – glimpses of laughing faces and mocking masks, bathed in red light. It’s a reminder of who’s who to viewers, but also acts as a Kill Bill-like alarm: a signal that, when you hear it, payback is about to be dished out. That combination of ticking off victims and the bill’s deadline gives Episode 3 of Wolf Hall a renewed urgency and pace; it’s less period drama and more historical thriller.
With that gripping momentum comes a surprising slice of brutality, which begins with the opening torture and moves all the way through to burning people at the stake. Mark Rylance oozes that nastiness with every polite threat. “I will drag you out of whatever hole you are cowering in,” he warns Harry Percy, “and the Duke of Norfolk will bite your bollocks off.”
What’s most striking, though, is the sex drive discovered underneath those civilised clothes. By hewing closer to House of Cards than The Tudors, Wolf Hall has firmly established itself as a restrained, un-trashy take on events – a programme that relies on its presentation and performances for excitement, rather than mere rumpy-pumpy. But this episode sees an eruption of desire ripple over the top of the TV set; a subtle touch but one that, within the prim and proper context, makes this feel as libidinous as Cruel Intentions 3.
Libido, after all, is the driving power behind all of this: Henry, a frustrated Damien Lewis points out, cannot get it up for any other woman than Anne, a fact that leads him to believe she is The One. The presence of Percy in the wings, though, the notion that she might not be a virgin, is too scandalous, even for the wannabe divorcee.
The smiling Charity Wakefield also gets to put on the feminine wiles as Anne’s sister, Mary, who hits on Cromwell, as she notes she taught Anne everything she knows in the bedroom. A flustered Thomas doesn’t know what to say, but we get a good idea of what he wants from a brief fantasy sequence that sees him stroking Anne’s chest: a rare display of his inner monologue and one that’s all the more arresting because of it. Meanwhile, she stares out of the window at a shamed Thomas More below – Claire Foy’s facial expression suggests she’s aware of her power over both the men in the courtyard and the man standing next to her.
“The world is no longer run by who you think,” Cromwell warns at one point to Percy. The man (or woman) with their hands on the pursestrings are the real rulers. Later, Cromwell and Anne take each other’s hand and walk outside to greet their latest victim. You can almost imagine them as the Underwoods of the 16th century. If this were a Tarantino film, the couple would walk straight out of the stately home and into a diner to rob everyone blind. Hell, even in their Tudor garb, you wouldn’t put it past them.
Wolf Hall is available on BBC iPlayer until 15th January 2018.
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Photo: BBC/Company Productions Ltd