mon 22/07/2024

Wolf Hall, Series Finale, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Wolf Hall, Series Finale, BBC Two

Wolf Hall, Series Finale, BBC Two

Superb drama from another age reaches its chilling endgame

Spoiler alert: Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

Wolf Hall divided viewers from the off. It mesmerised many and left a vocal minority cold, for whom apparently - mystifyingly - it has all been a bit dull. The dialogue was too elliptical, the politics tricksy and convoluted (who is this Holy Roman Emperor anyway?), there was a surfeit of men called Thomas and women stitching in bay windows and big dresses.

And to cap it all director Peter Kosminsky, fetishising Mark Rylance’s inscrutable face, seemed to want every take to carry on into next week.

In the end, the rewards for loyalty were rich, and never more than in the adaptation's final 10 minutes, whither we all knew we’d been heading since the first 10. At the risk of provoking a visit from the spoiler police, there was bad news for the queen, sacrificed to the remorseless needs of the state. A monstrously beaming king was free to go and look for his next bride in the Seymours' eponymous country pile. Cromwell’s dirty work as a dynastic fixer was done, but at what cost to his conscience? In the final frames, his traumatised stare said everything and nothing.

In truth it hasn't always been easy to root for such a motivational vacancy

This has been television drama from another age, with its foot off the gas and its ear attuned to subtle human interactions audible only when a hyperactive soundtrack isn’t doing half the heavy lifting. It has had faith in the charisma of its leading man to be a still centre, the eye of a storm, and a perpetual question mark. Granted, there is a hilarious parody of Wolf Hall to be made in which Cromwell flashes the whites of his eyes in long sideways stares and says bugger all for hours on end, like a murderous Buster Keaton. There were indeed times when you did wish he’d say something, anything. But this was the story of a sphinx who rose without trace. “Madam, nothing here is personal,” he told the queen. Rylance managed to make that claim credible.

In truth it hasn't always been easy to root for such a motivational vacancy. The only time Cromwell’s pulse broke into a trot was in the penultimate episode when Henry had to be brought back to life at a joust. Cromwell hammered on his chest, galvanised by the survival instinct of cornered prey: the king’s death would have meant his own too. Meanwhile, in the last episode there was finally a glimpse of the brutal thug known to history. “We’ll write down what you say,” he told the queen’s bragging musician, “but we won’t necessarily write down what we do.” Even here he drew the line at torture. His methods were never less than pragmatic. As he commuted round prison cells conjuring up criminal evidence which would condemn the queen - a spellbinding sequence, this - it was simply to free up the king to legally impregnate a fresher womb.There were plenty of fireworks elsewhere. Damian Lewis’s chilling Henry stomped about the place like an ageing alpha infant, crude in his mood swings and shameless in his casuistries. In a cast where everyone seems to have raised their game, Rylance’s other laurel-sharing co-star has been Claire Foy. Her Anne Boleyn was a masterful study of the spoilt, flouncy, insecure second wife, pitiful at last only as power ebbed visibly away. That bitch-slap to the pert face of Lady Rochford (Jessica Raine, also excellent) had a desperate animal ferocity. Her last one-on-one with Cromwell yielded the unthinkable, an 11th-hour appeal to his humanity. It provoked the most daringly dragged-out silence of all.

It looked beautiful (cinematography: Gavin Finney; also high fives for all the designers), and not just when Kosminsky blew the last coppers of the candle budget for the night-time trial of Anne and her brother. The gods stored up the worst weather till last. Unlike other outdoor scenes, the queen’s execution was filmed on a grimly windy day, in flat overcast light, bleeding the last dash of colour from Foy’s alabaster complexion. Not that anyone who sees the news needs to be reminded, but a beheading is a very shocking thing, however touchingly done. We know who’s next.

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