To begin with, I liked it. Quite a lot. Four stars. Out of five (it wasn’t perfect). The opening minutes are especially hamstrung by clunky history-lesson dialogue, for which I recognise the need, though the sense of being chaperoned by a script has rarely been stronger. In the off-centre phrasing, the sheer wrongness of idiom, lies a terror that we may not get the message, and it grates. Norfolk’s (Bernard Hill) ‘Wolsey, you’re out!’ opens, but worse is to come. ‘You wanted it all to rule, didn’t you?’ He did? ‘Well I am here now, and I will chew you up, bones, flesh, and gristle,’ he says, confirming the desperation of the defiantly wrong visual choices leading up to this moment. We have already been lectured at by doomy captions in the doom font – it’s 1529, we learn, and the King is not a forgiving man – as doom music follows armed riders towards a crepuscular manor house. Can something be wrong?
The panicked impulse to blurt out all your secrets from the get-go betrays a struggle for narrative control, which finally comes, perhaps predictably, in the camera’s first access to Rylance’s hawkish, silent melancholy (his opening line is in fact an inaudible whisper; it is enough for us simply to see him). By putting himself in command of the film rather than at its disposal in this way, he settles its chaotic rhythms, seeming to sit back from Peter Straughan’s bull-in-a-china-shop screenplay until its energies are spent and it is tame enough to be around. For all Rylance’s, shall we say, eccentricities, the bugger can act, and the novel’s history-as-ontology method has far more purchase in the alert nuances of his face, passing sadly through the maze of the world, than anything the spoken word can here provide.
The source of his achievement is aspectual: we see his Cromwell in complex, subordinate relation to the flow of time, and while ‘great people’ mould parts of their life on the public stage of history, they also lose large chunks of it, as we all do, within the cracks of lived experience. Like change or earrings. The great commonplace of historical narration is of telling either how, or simply that, people are made by nature, opportunity, circumstance, love, acts of will, pain, abuse, devastating loss, petty disaster. But much harder to capture are the simple acts of being – within rooms within days – the small sorrows of the long hours, the faultlines that grow as we are pushed steadily out of everything that we own and are.
Lives are also, of course, cracked apart by seismic sorrows from time to time. The scene in which Cromwell’s young family dies of the sweating sickness, so quietly and quickly that the event seems to pass from the world with the brief seconds that see it out, is astonishing to watch. He outfaces its terrible matter-of-factness with some of his own, his tears more an absorption than an outpouring as he works immediately to salvage the wreck with whatever resources he can gather, starting with the decision to go and murder his father. He doesn’t do it, though it’s an opportunity to replay and conquer the past, which he also doesn’t manage. But the path to the abuses of his early life the loss of his family lays open is compelling, seeming to suggest that in building close ties around ourselves we seek protection from pain, from the world’s indifference, and, perhaps most of all, from the shame of who or what we used to be. When the stays of love are taken away, it all comes flooding back.
The following scene, then, in which he grants his young ward’s request to take his surname, is a potent reassertion of control. Kindness is needed if we are to suffer well, as is resolve, and so we gradually come to understand, the episode’s initial fumblings notwithstanding, that Rylance’s poise is not just rooted in the patient endurance of temporal shift. It is a discipline, a forged will of iron – in happy metaphorical relation to his blacksmith’s origins – that can overcome both the external world and the assaults of memory and self-doubt. The scene in which he contemplates a prayer book, his mind’s eye tracing the ghost of his daughter’s fingers over the illuminated lettering, snapping back to coherent decision-making at the realisation he must move to protect Wolsey, is a powerful study in this.
It is the same will that enabled the poor boy’s rise among potentates, just as it now enables his steadfast loyalty to them. The scene at Bonvisi’s supper in which Cromwell confronts More over his rise to the Lord Chancellorship, as Wolsey’s bucket plunges into the well, is a masterclass in tonal and political check – ‘What’s that? (Pause) A fucking accident?’ At this point we question our hearing, and realise that the effect of the shock has been cumulative. Here, as at all times before, Rylance doesn’t so much speak the lines as decant them, measuring out meaning in ceremonial calculation and drawing off impurity. The even cadence with which the expletive infiltrates the sentence, a word being snuck out in disguise by its confederates, is a stunning effect. Perhaps, despite the warnings of his mentor’s collapse, this is a man tough enough to keep control of Henry’s ear.
In times gone by, artworks depicting Henry VIII were obliged to figure out a politic shorthand, a language of stately euphemism for the heavy consequence of befriending, serving, or, worst of all, marrying the King – see Sir Thomas More or All Is True for evidence of this. No such subtleties are permitted, or indeed needed, here, and though Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) is yet to prove the extent to which his tyrant mind is to be feared, there is still the sense that those of the King’s sphere don’t live so much with or near him, as around him in a quaking diaspora. But Cromwell is different. The bizarre confidence of his rejoinders to Damian Lewis’ Henry sets him apart, both from others and from anything his ill reputation can do to precede or hamper him. Knowing he has won, at least for now, he tells servants to paint the Cardinal’s crest brighter than before, and abandons us until the next instalment.
Other honorable mentions must go to Mark Gatiss, who gives a brilliantly reliable Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner, while Saskia Reeves’ Joan Broughton brings balance to Rylance’s stoicism with some poignantly crafted regular feelings in the scene of his wife and children’s deaths. Jonathan Pryce is an excellent Wolsey, whom I shall miss when he goes. He was looking increasingly peaky and thoroughly out of favour as the episode wore on, while the tightly wound potential of both Lewis and Foy, shown only in sample-size portions here, suggests a change of method might be on the cards. Rylance, through the necessary remove of the camera, manages miraculously to honour the novel’s strange proximities – Mantel both courts and studiously avoids the first person – and to put us alongside him in history’s great waiting room. I rather hope things don’t succumb to more frenetic outward energies, though doubts remain, and it will be interesting to see if the methodical pace can be upheld in the coming weeks. More superficially, though not insignificantly I think, I watched the episode on a recently acquired 40-inch HD television, with which I am in love, and which renders anything, anything – adverts, the news, Cadfael repeats on ITV3 – beautiful and compelling to watch, and the solemn grandeur I saw in Wolf Hall‘s handling of character in time may read as the everyday hallmarks of a boring show on another device. One of our finest Henrician scholars has suggested as much, and I take very seriously the points he makes (http://theconversation.com/wolf-hall-may-be-historically-accurate-but-its-also-a-bit-dull-36179). We shall see …