History hasn’t always been kind to Cromwell.
Opinion shifts quite violently to considering him Henry VIII’s right hand man to a shifty planner of self-interest. As Wolf Hall shows, such changes of opinion happened within Cromwell’s time, too. When it was Henry who suddenly decided that he didn’t like you anymore, Tudor life was lived on a knife edge.
The masterstroke of Mark Rylance’s performance, Peter Straughn’s adapation, Peter Kominsky’s direction, and of course Hilary Mantel’s original books, is that we can no longer pass judgement on Thomas Cromwell. We have been looking over his shoulder for five weeks: we are complicit in everything he says and does. He may well be playing the long game, but it’s increasingly difficult to see just what that game is.
Even more than Cromwell, Jane Rochford (Jessica Raine) appears to be the best chess player in court. She tells Cromwell that Bolyen is again pregnant.
‘It’s to be expected,’ she says, gleaming eyes to his stony gaze. ‘she was with the king for much of the summer. And when he was not with her, he would write her love letters, and sent them by the hand of Harry Norris.’ Cromwell doesn’t even blink, his mind on other matters. Jane smiles almost sadly at his departing back, saying what we’re all thinking: ‘You’re usually such a good listener.’
Jane Seymour is being not-that subtly positioned as a replacement for the now irritant Anne Boleyn, although it’s for a moment undecided how she can best fight off any unwanted attentions from Henry. It’s first of all suggested that she scream, but realising that nobody is going to face up to the king in such a situation, Cromwell offers up the 1530’s version of advising a woman to shout out ‘fire’ instead of ‘rape’. She should pray, he suggests.
‘Pray. Out loud. Something that will appeal to His Majesty’s sense of piety and honour.’ Jane sees the wisdom in Cromwell’s words. ‘I’ll get my prayer book,’ she says. ‘I’m sure I can find something that will fit the bill.’ This is a woman who knows her duty, even as she can see her predecessor being lined up for the chopping block.
Anne knows only too well how irrelevant she’s becoming: the French fail to acknowledge her marriage and the birth of her daughter. ‘It’s as if I didn’t exist,’ she ponders. She is the Queen of England, and has no power. She demands that Cromwell distracts Mary – her main rival – with the promise of a pretty young man.
‘You want me to compromise her?’ he asks. His tone suggests that he doesn’t necessarily think it a bad idea. His next word, however, says otherwise: ‘No,’ he tells the queen. His stance is met with disbelief. When, later, he chooses to defy the king, nobody, including Cromwell himself, expects him to see another dawn. The Queen also has to fend off a possible assassination attempt which may not be as straightforward as it first appears: as the old joke has it, a case either of arson or arsin’ about.
Even if you know how this particular history book plays out, the narrative is so tautly directed to make you breathless: when the death of a monarch is announced, you can’t help but wonder if you’re remembering your history lessons wrong.
When, for a moment, it’s believed that Henry has died, a new England is almost born within seconds underneath a joust and a sheet of canvas. Civil War is promised. Lord Norfolk panics: ‘A woman cannot rule, Cromwell! A woman cannot rule!’ The implication being that the only other option is a rather nasty death.
Cromwell is asked if he wants to flee: if the king is dead, then those closest to him will surely follow. It’s a terrifying moment, as a collection of men begin to show their true colours and allegiances. When, a few seconds later, Henry coughs up a fresh breath, those men choke back their voice. But they have been heard.
It’s clear that the main reason for a short life expectancy in Henry’s time wasn’t diet. The breathless switching of loyalties and stabbing of backs makes for very high blood pressure. Henry is a very dangerous person to get on the wrong side of – even more than usual, screaming that he’s not an infant before demonstrating exactly the opposite. Cromwell, still playing the longest of games, turns his back on the King – and in public, too.
It’s almost certainly political suicide, not to mention actual suicide. Henry is left blinking and gibbering, and the court wait patiently for Cromwell’s neck to meet the blade. His composure (almost) never wavers. For the first time, we’re allowed to see in Cromwell’s head, via an internal voice (as opposed to a flashbacked memory). It’s a missed beat in what’s a very strong episode. There’s lots more going on in the darkness.
‘You did well to run, Cromwell’, Thomas Gardiner tells him. Cromwell doesn’t react. He knows there’s just a little more to run yet.
Aired at 9pm on Wednesday 18 February 2015 on BBC Two.
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