Words. Words. Just words.
If Wolf Hall could be accused of anything, it’s of being over-written. Slow-paced, stuffed with characters and told in a present tense without a name for its main character, the unwieldy trait of Hilary Mantel’s novels has carried over onto the screen for the BBC adaptation. But that’s no accident. Episode 4 savours that writer’s power more than any other so far, turning this crawl towards death and divorce into an exercise in fate and control.
“Cancel the jousts,” says Damian Lewis’ King Henry, upon hearing that his wife’s child is not a boy, but a girl. Anne is insistent that she can produce a male heir, knowing that her power relies upon it. Claire Foy storms about with an increasingly desperate air; her steam of last week’s manipulations dispersed by the cold air of history.
Of course, we already know what’s in store for her and you can almost see the growing awareness of that future in Foy’s wide eyes. That same pressure is bearing down upon all of our characters and Peter Straughan’s script teases out the tension of inevitability with a measured confidence.
At the centre of the page is More (Anton Lesser), who refuses to sign the bill acknowledging Henry as head of the church. Just as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible so powerfully captured, one’s name committed to paper can rob a man of everything – and the Tudor court is no less of a witch hunt.
Cromwell is leading it, naturally – at Anne and Henry’s behest. And it’s here that Mark Rylance gives us a sliver of conscience to go with Crom’s slithering ways; an apparent resistance to see More make his prescribed payment of a visit to the Tower. He even refuses to address Anne as Your Majesty, rebuffing her instructions of torture with a brief “Madame, we don’t do that”; a reminder of the authority a single word can hold.
But if Foy’s performance reveals the nuanced terror of Anne bubbling underneath her regal surface – one that Peter Kosmisnky highlights with a painful tracking shot through her bedroom after a tragic and bloody twist of fate – Rylance’s presence makes it clear that Cromwell has set himself on his own back-stabbing path.
“You always have some kind of trick,” More’s wife says, when she visits him to plead for her husband’s life. “Born tricky,” he smiles back, grimly.
Not to be outdone, Lewis savours the lines he gets to deliver, spitting as much as the episode’s title when he loses any pretence of friendship with his enforcer. “I keep you because you are a serpent,” he hisses. Anne’s sister, Jane, matches him for sheer bile – Jessica Raine is a hilariously nasty addition to the cast – but it is the quieter exchanges between the fascinatingly hard-to-read Lesser and Rylance that prove the most rewarding. (Although a special mention should always go to Bernard Hill’s always entertaining Duke of Norfolk.)
And so we are treated to Cromwell and More playing off against each other, each stubborn, both conscientious and neither able to avoid what’s coming to them. Cromwell recalls a time when he visited More as a serving boy in one of their quiet – but gripping – exchanges. “You were reading, I remember. I asked you what was in the book and you said ‘Words, words, just words’.”
It’s only now that Cromwell seems to appreciate the effect letters can have, crucially dictating the king’s written itinerary to include a visit to the titular Wolf Hall – where Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour, is already waiting in the wings. While the programme undoubtedly takes pleasure in its writerly wrangling, the question we find ourselves asking is just how much satisfaction Cromwell now gets from his pre-written role.
“He wrote this play years ago,” he observes of More. “And he sniggers every time I trip over my lines.”
Wolf Hall is available on BBC iPlayer until 15th January 2018.
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Photo: BBC/Company Productions Ltd