UK TV review: Wolf Hall Episode 2
James R | On 30, Jan 2015
“There’s a conversation I shouldn’t have had.”
That’s Cromwell, after talking to his sister-in-law (Saskia Reeves) in a typically dark room. It’s a key turning point in the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel: after the first, somewhat dizzying, hour of watching and wondering what’s going on behind those sad eyes, we finally get a glimpse inside his head.
It turns out that he’s as calculating as we first suspected, but this is no Frank Underwood moment: his asides are muttered to himself, not to any audience, because Cromwell is man of few words. The ones he does offer are measured and more manipulative than a hungry cat that’s graduated from Cambridge with a degree in reverse psychology.
Considering how much of Hilary Mantel’s text there is to condense into these short hours of TV, it’s striking just how few words there are on screen: a few introductory title cards, yes, but Wolf Hall is a series defined as much by its silence as its speech.
Rylance is a master of saying nothing, the slight shift of his eyebrows conveying volumes of regret or, increasingly, revenge. Damien Lewis, it should be noted, is equally excellent as Henry VII, generously giving the spotlight to the stage veteran, while still selling their fledgling bromance. As Cardinal Wolsey is shafted up north, Cromwell hangs about in corridors to beg favour from the king, who is also wary of what he should and shouldn’t say. Between the muttered exchanges and boisterous, banter-filled archery contests, the mere act of Henry looking at Cromwell is significant, as he becomes increasingly aware of his presence – and, thanks to Cromwell’s hints, his use to the crown.
Thomas expertly works his way closer into the king’s inner circle, a journey that Straughan gives the scale of The Godfather or The Godfather Part 2, while Mark Gatiss’ snooty Stephen Gardiner watches on disapprovingly. And he does it by keeping schtum – until the time is right.
That political tact tellingly extends to his relationship with Wolsey, as the old man worries about the omen of black kittens being born under his bed – new life, assures Cromwell! Not bad luck! It’s not long until he’s pulling the same trick on Henry, spinning a dream about his dead brother as an order to become a stronger, independent king.
Mary Boleyn appears to be one of the few who gets the measure of him, commenting on the grey colour of his clothes and warning him of her sister’s own power games. But he remains commited to his own mission, as it soon becomes clear that his deception of Wolsey is part compassion, part detachment ready to position himself for payback.
We catch a growing number of glimpses of the man behind that cool demeanour, as he cuddles a tiny puss and wanders around singing after some ill-advised rumpy-pumpy, but these are rare gaps in an otherwise impervious mask; moments that occur in private rather than public. The fact that Cromwell lingers half in shadow, half in light only adds to that claustrophobic air of eavesdropping, as the handheld direction puts us in the same role of surreptitious listener. Cromwell, as Anne notes, knows all the gossip, not because he talks, but because he hears.
That only gives more weight to what he chooses to say aloud to others. When a friend raises the subject of the Cardinal’s humiliation and promises to pray for justice, Cromwell replies, calm and collected. “There’s no need to trouble God. I’ll take it in hand.” The conversation ends. It’s definitely one he should have had.
Wolf Hall is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.