UK TV review: Wolf Hall Episode 5 (Crows)
James R | On 20, Feb 2015
Whoever said Wolf Hall was boring? The ratings may have dropped for the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels, but the penultimate episode of the season is its busiest yet.
Death comes to Wolf Hall in Episode 5. It might sound ominous – not least because of its title, Crows – but Peter Straughan’s script moves at an almost dizzying speed, skipping between those pregnant pauses to pack in its slow-burning plot points before next week’s finale.
It’s not just one death, but several. The biggest – not just in terms of waist size – is that of Henry VIII, who enters a jousting tournament against Cromwell’s own son, Gregory.
“Will you forbear to unhorse him, if you can help it?” asks Thomas. “We can’t help what we do, really. When you’re thundering down at a man, you can’t check,” replies Damian Lewis’ king, dismissively. He’s never been more childlike in his demeanour than here, self-centred and petulantly whining about his lack of a son.
It’s perhaps only fitting that he is knocked flying by Gregory, then, and left out cold on his back. A crowd immediately gathers, while the Duke of Norfolk plans to take the regency for himself. In another show, such an event might be contrived – just the thing to spice up a period drama thought to be slow-paced and dull. But Mark Rylance’s Cromwell makes it clear just how disastrous the king’s death would be: without Henry, Thomas goes back to being the blacksmith’s boy, a nobody. The king is a child, but his keeper is no less dependent.
Cromwell, inevitably, saves the king’s life, but that vulnerability is still on display. It lingers when Mark Gatiss’ venomous Gardiner arrives and recalls a murder from Cromwell’s past. It opens even wider when Eustace Chapuys visits. Mathieu Amalric is wonderfully French as the ambassador and his discreet chat with Thomas is wonderfully revealing. “To succeed with Henry, you have to anticipate his desires,” says Thomas. “But then, if he changes his mind, you stand out there… expose, no?”
An outburst of rage from Henry – and a flashback to Cromwell’s childhood – keep Tom firmly in our sympathy, even as he continues to pull the strings in the king’s love life, manoeuvring the monarch towards the young Jane Seymour.
In one delightfully understated scene, he glances out the window, only to spy the two talking on the lawn. He steps back, but still lurks in the shadow. Elsewhere, he gives instructions to Jane’s family, who are far from against the idea of their daughter becoming the next Anne.
More fool them, you might think, knowing the history of what’s in store for Miss Boleyn. And Claire Foy, impressively, manages to make us feel sorry for the queen, threatened by Seymour’s bashful letters and chaste, virtuous smiles.
The final departure involves a surprise dog falling from a window – a moment as unexpected as Jonathan Pryce’s cameo return as Wolsey. But with Thomas now facing the same situation as the ex-Cardinal, his appearance only reminds us how close death is for all of our players. Regicide, homicide and canicide all in one episode? Wolf Hall has never been so thrilling.
Wolf Hall is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.