From top to bottom, the outstanding quality of the PBS-BBC series Wolf Hall cannot be overstated. Peter Straughan‘s biting, minimalist script from Hilary Mantel‘s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies was perfectly accented by Peter Kosminsky’s direction, which relied on natural lighting and scenes set up like live paintings.
But what really made the series come alive and stay wonderfully engrossing were the performances by Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn. Though every cast member brought something special to their roles, Wolf Hall was truly Rylance and Foy’s dance. Though Cromwell was loyal to King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), even serving as the monarch’s close friend and confident, the real action (such as it was) revolved around the complicated politics and posturing between Cromwell and Boleyn.
In this week’s final episode, “Master of Phantoms,” Anne’s fortunes are down, and they continue to sink like a stone thanks to Cromwell’s machinations on Henry’s behalf. But they are also on Cromwell’s own behalf, as he is no longer in Anne’s favor, either. They built each other up, and could tear each other down. Though there was clearly some admiration and understanding shared between them, there was never trust. And as wonderfully twisted and calculating as Anne was, she was ultimately no match for Cromwell’s Machiavellian moves.
Which, of course, all concluded with a bitterly bleak scene where Anne is liberated from her head. Throughout the season, Wolf Hall was restrained in its violence, with most of the death and torture held off screen. Anne’s death was by far its most graphic moment, but the true horror was felt in how the last half of the episode was devoted to her realization that she could not escape this fate.
Foy has been incredible all season as a mercurial manipulator, changing her tone and countenance to match any occasion. More than anything, though, there was always a notable defiance in her portrayal of Anne. Her head was always held high, her mouth set, her eyes flashing with a dare to cross her. She was proud, but not ignorant of the fact that her position was precarious. As she watched Henry begin to drift from her, she took on a frantic — but still controlled — air of desperation. In her final scenes heading towards the gallows, her movements were furtive and jerky, as she both hoped for a savior, and feared the reality of her death. Her confidence finally broken, she trembled mightily before the event, yet dutifully found some strength to speak kind and necessary words about Henry.
Watching Foy’s performance here was excruciating in the best of ways. She made us truly feel Anne’s terror, but it was magnified further by Rylance as Cromwell, looking on with a mixture of sadness and acceptance. Rylance has been masterful in Wolf Hall, channeling all of Cromwell’s many attributes (from gentle sincerity to wicked bullying) in the most subtle of ways. His jaw was never set with determination, but rather, he watched carefully with almost a slack face, as if wearied by all he must do to achieve his means. His face, though (framed by some of TV’s most memorable haberdashery) was also a mask — placid, observant. Yet Rylance was able to convey so much through the smallest of gestures or changes in cadence. In the often quiet or completely silent series, Rylance’s visage seemed to fill the whole screen, the slightest twitch revealing a clue to his true feelings.
The two actors were never better than when together, though, particularly in a notable scene earlier in the series when they looked out from a window together, Cromwell imagining touching Anne’s heaving chest (one he had made fun of at the start of the series for lacking in size), and Anne knowingly suggesting that he can’t wait to gloat over his success. Neither can she. Placing her hand atop his, they leave to join Henry, and be a part of the spectacle. At the conclusion of Wolf Hall, though, only one of them joins Henry again, with sorrow cracking through his mask.
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