This review contains major spoilers. Proceed with caution!
“Wolf Hall” finally drew to a close on PBS this weekend with “Master of Phantoms.” It’s 1536 and Thomas Cromwell is set on freeing Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) from Anne Boleyn, bringing a set of rousing portrayals by Mark Rylance and Claire Foy. I’ve taken issue before with Claire Foy’s scenes; but in this installment, she was very compelling as the now spurned queen. Momentum has been building in previous episodes: ultimately pointing to Cromwell’s mission to seek vengeance against Cardinal Wolsey’s (Jonathan Pryce) enemies.
The clash of the Cromwell and Anne is captured from the start in a daymare, in which a feast is laid out. Cromwell looks on wide-eyed as Anne’s body is pulled across the table towards him. It’s quite disturbing yet artfully done, as Anne’s gaze finally hits our own directly through the frame. The dark tone continues on, as Cromwell comes back to himself and the luncheon at his home. Director Peter Kosminsky enjoys bringing viewers in and out of Cromwell’s head, throwing a seemingly mundane moment (e.g. a dinner, looking out of a window) into something absolutely bizarre, hilarious, or horrifying all at once. It’s an upheaval of the mind that mirrors the unpredictability of the circumstances in which Cromwell finds himself.
The king is quite distant depite Anne’s efforts to get him interested in their daughter, the young Elizabeth. His departure leads into a confrontation between Cromwell and Anna, whereby she warns him, “Those who’ve been made can be unmade.” It’s an observation that fits her own situation. Unfortunately, Anne’s falling popularity causes her attendants to turn against her when she ridicules lute player Mark Smeaton (Max Fowler) and then slaps Lady Jane Rochford (Jessica Raine).
Lady Jane has a very interesting conversation with Cromwell, reporting that Anne has lovers and even engages in an incestuous relationship with her brother George (the husband of Lady Jane, played by Edward Holcraft). A bewildered Cromwell asks, “Do you want me to record that?” The innuendo and jokes continue when lute player Mark is interrogated by Cromwell, Rafe (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Richard (Joss Porter). However, we get to see more of Cromwell’s darker side as Mark is locked up overnight in a chamber with torture implements; but the punishment is merely psychological.
It’s an intense series of interviews with Henry Norris (Luke Roberts), George, and others; an ordeal that even takes its toll on Cromwell. He needed “guilty men, though not necessarily as charged,” he admits. The approach is befitting of someone characterized by the king as “a snake” and completely Machiavellian. As much as Anne Boleyn and her friends get what they deserve, Cromwell’s methods may leave you with mixed feelings.
The sentiment carries forward in the haunting cuts between his walk on the empty scaffold (more Steadicam point of view shots) and Anne Boleyn’s execution. Add another layer to that if you will: we’ve seen the rise of Cromwell, but as with everyone in Henry VIII’s entourage, it’s easy to fall out of favor. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened just yet to our protagonist, who arrives at the king’s quarters in a beautifully shot scene in slow motion. At the same time, the victory feels hollow. Cromwell looks quite dazed as the king embraces him, giving us another foretaste that the road ahead is fraught with uncertainty.
Interestingly enough, the focus here was mainly on Cromwell and Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips) was only alluded to as “growing in boldness.” The study of these two characters was compelling, particularly with respect to Anne’s “little neck” and her wringing hands. Cromwell changes the wording of the sentencing statute from burning only to burning OR beheading, resulting in a powerful exchange of mixed emotions as Anne’s gaze locks with his own. There aren’t many actors that can produce so much in a mere look or short piece of dialogue, which is why “Wolf Hall” should rate high on your list. Yes, there’s the debate about historical accuracy and anti-Catholic sentiments (such as Thomas Moore’s portrayal), but that shouldn’t detract from an analysis at purely the level of entertainment.
Let’s hope there isn’t too long of a wait for another season of “Wolf Hall.” If you live in the UK and you want to see more of Mark Rylance, be sure to catch him this September in “Farinelli and the King.”