New York Times, April 12, 2015
Leo McKern, is that you?
I ask because, until Hilary Mantel published her Tudor books, the best-known pop-culture representation of Thomas Cromwell was McKern's floridly villainous turn in the film "A Man for All Seasons" (1966)—a performance worth reviewing only because it shows us Cromwell as we used to "know" him: snarling, humorless, mendacious, intent on bullying a saintly man into martyrdom.
By contrast, here are some things that the Cromwell of the "Wolf Hall" miniseries does over the course of Episode 2: denounce mean monks; soothe addled monarchs; hum Italian ditties; and cuddle with a kitten and bunny rabbit. When, of course, he's not cuddling with his absurdly cute retinue: a son, nephew and ward who combine in age to somewhere under 60. (As Rafe, Thomas Brodie-Sangster looks only a hair older than when he was playing Liam Neeson's stepson in "Love Actually.")
The whole business can feel like a Nixonian rehabilitation campaign, except that Episode 2 also shows us a Cromwell (Mark Rylance) who scares his own family, worms his way onto the Privy Council and makes time with his dead wife's married sister (a middle-aged clasp that is, curiously, the miniseries' first incursion into sex).
Nor does he pass up on the cold dish of revenge. When his old mentor, Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), dies on the verge of imprisonment, surrounded by enemies, Wolsey's caretaker confesses, "I prayed God to send vengeance upon them all." "There's no need to trouble God," says our hero. "I'll take it in hand."
So if Cromwell is being rehabilitated before our eyes, he isn't exactly being let off the hook, and his moral compass isn't becoming any easier to define. "I'll say this for you," says King Henry (Damian Lewis). "You stick by your man." But which man? Wolsey dies with Cromwell's name on his lips, but his old protégé is miles away, ostensibly attending to the cardinal's affairs but attending just as sedulously to his own.
And when Wolsey's enemy Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) puts out the call, Cromwell comes running. She's heard that he's "a useful support to employ," and she has just the job for him: finding the artist behind a (rather prescient) poisoned-pen drawing that shows Anne sans tête. But this seems to be just a pretext for ladling a particular message in his ear. "This will happen," she declares. "I mean to have him."
Afterward, Johane (Saskia Reeves) is full of curiosity about Lady Anne.
"Tall or short?"
"Neither," mumbles Cromwell.
"They say she dances well."
"We didn't dance."
Ah, but you did, Thomas. And if it's not yet apparent who's leading and who's following, it's pretty clear that Boleyn and Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, are forged in the same smithy. They see everything and stop at nothing, and their motto is the same: Once you've figured out what needs to be done, find the straightest path there.
But even as they practice their dark arts, they are half-consciously planting the seeds of a democratic future. In the words of Bonvisi (Enzo Cilenti): "A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be ..."
The sentence trails off, but Cromwell has his own ideas on the subject. He's only waiting for the next call, and sure enough, he's summoned to Greenwich for impromptu augury. The king has been visited in dreams by his late brother, Arthur—"pale, thin, a white fire around him"—and to Henry the vision has only one possible meaning: "He's come back to make me ashamed for taking his kingdom, using his wife."
The other consultant in the room - Dr. Thomas Cranmer (Will Keen) - is an academic by nature who falls back on hard-line theology. Cromwell's genius is to embrace psychology. Arthur, he declares, doesn't want to shame his brother. He wants Henry to "to become the king he would have been."
"Now is the vital time," adds Cromwell. "Now is the time for you to become the king you should be. The sole and supreme head of your kingdom."
It's as if the biblical Joseph, instead of prophesying drought and famine, had assured the pharaoh of decades of prosperity. It's a brilliant, seemingly off-the-cuff performance that leaves the bedazzled Henry murmuring, "I understand it all now."
To my mind this scene is the pivot upon which the whole series rests: two men seizing their separate chances, and in the same moment an entire country forking away from its presumed destiny.
But toward what? That's the question these men must answer, and it's not clear that Henry has the capacity to answer it himself. I would have guessed on paper that Damian Lewis was miscast in this part, but his quality of unstable gentleness now seems to me ideal for Mantel's conception. This Henry is both conscious of his power—look at the offhand way he extends his arm, waiting for Cromwell to unsleeve him—and profoundly unconscious of it. "Anne says she'll leave me," he moans. "Says there are other men. Says she's wasting her youth."
A more self-aware monarch would realize that he's the one man Anne would never leave (any more than Cromwell would). It's emotion that drives this Henry, not sex or power. And so many emotions—some irreconcilable (Wolsey versus Boleyn), none erasable—that he can't even sort them all out. Only two things are certain: He will never stop loving the people he has loved, and he will never be more than a step away from hating them.
Fraught symbol: Wolsey's turquoise ring, passed along to his consigliere, Cromwell. Stripped of religious connotation, does it confer power or doom? Or does it simply refract the ambition of the man who wears it?
Best line: Johane, continuing her Boleyn inquiry: "Are her teeth good?" Cromwell: "When she sinks them into me, I'll let you know."
Machiavelli would be proud: "Part of the art of ruling, perhaps. Know when to shut your ears." (Bonvisi)
Hilarious dinner party at the Mores. Awful food, a hooting fool, a pet monkey and a tipsy Alice More (Monica Dolan) demanding to know why Cromwell won't marry again. "You've got everything below in good working order, haven't you?"
A sign of how tangled the royal web was: Anne Boleyn's knitting circle harbors not one but two future queens of England. As Jane Seymour, Kate Phillips has the kind of helpless, unfortified face that makes you wonder how she'll survive another day, let alone ascend to the throne. Watch out for the ones that cry!
Nice trick to have Cranmer make his entrance, Cromwell-style, from the shadows. Like our hero, he's learned the trick of being invisible when it suits.
Speak, "Wolf" watchers. Are you rooting for Cromwell? Are you rooting for anyone? Isn't it amazing to contemplate how much the world depended upon a woman having a boy child? Aren't you feeling a little sorry, sight unseen, for Princess Mary, "the talking shrimp"? (Yeah, I know she grows up to be Bloody Mary.) And ... from certain angles, doesn't Mark Rylance resemble Dan Hedaya?