Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Wolf Hall: Episode 4- The Devil's Spit

"You think I keep you for the charm of your person? I keep you because you are  a serpent!"

The King's dejected response to the birth of his daughter is perfect: "Call her Elizabeth. Cancel the jousts." Anne Boleyn is now Queen but under real pressure to produce a son. Power is slipping away from her with every month's delay, and she reacts by lashing out at enemies perceived and real. The "bastard" Princess Mary must become a servant to her daughter. Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher have disrespected her, and therefore must die. She is becoming increasingly shrill and unpleasant.

Cromwell is circumspect with her, but notably more distant, and here we have the first vague rumours of affairs.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Barton is interrogated, compromising many powerful people, many of whom have offended Cromwell by crowing about his "low birth". Chips on shoulders can be very dangerous things. I'm not sure, four episodes in, that this series is quite as good as its reputation, although I may be a little jaded by popular culture's obsession with the reign of Henry VIII to the exclusion of all other English history. But the economy of storytelling, through pithy dialogue and through meaningful silences, impresses.

Cromwell delights, too, in informing More of the oath he will be made to take, an oath that will prove his downfall. This is, of course, revenge; revenge for those of Cromwell's secret persuasion whom Mire has tortured and killed, including, as we know, a good friend. This is a darker side to Cromwell, much darker, yet Rylance ensures that he still has our sympathies. 

Away from the main plot, we have a disturbing detail: the Duke of Norfolk has a new wife. He "won't leave her alone", and she's a child of fourteen. This is deliberately horrifying, reminding us that much of the world is still like this.

Anton Lesser, whatever I've said in the recent past, is superb here. He cuts a sympathetic person in his willingness to die for his conscience, and Lesser communicates this brilliantly in his delivery of simple, emotive lines like "Will I see my daughter again?" And yet in doing this he abandons his wife and daughters, all of whom have signed the oath, to an uncertain future.

And Cromwell will not let him, or us, forget that this man is a mass tortuter and murderer of "heretics".

More's violent death is not directly shown- we cut from his head on the block to "It's the prayer book he had with him at the end"- but he's gone, now. The spotlight turns on Anne, who has miscarried, and now Cromwell appears to be seriously ill...

This is a well-written, acted and directed drama. And yet... a certain spark of greatness seems so far to be missing.

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