Anne (Claire Foy) has had a miscarriage (penultimate sequence, Wolf Hall 4), POV, Thomas Cromwell aka Mark Rylance first observes the sexually spiteful Jane Boleyn (Jessica Raine) and then stands before Anne
… the historical novel has been one of the sites where women writers have had most freedom to examine masculinity as a social and cultural construct, Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel, British Women Writers, 1900-2000)
Dear friends and readers,
We left off at the close of Wolf Hall 2, whose screenplay is (let us nor forget) is by Robert Straughan since in Wolf Hall 5 &6, we will retrospectively observe and understand some significant departures by Straughan from Hilary Mantel’s conception. We watched Thomas Cromwell meditating over relics, objects to remember Cardinal Wolsey (played by Jonathan Pryce), including a blue ring he places on his finger, which he will twist now and again in the rest of the drama.
I argued the over-arching trajectory of the three-act (albeit 6 part) mini-series is that of a psychologically and politically complex Renaissance revenge tragedy. Within that larger framing, there are a number of secondary stories, with accompanying themes, some which cross all six episodes, some dominating just one episode or group of scenes. This week I will concentrate on two, one pictorially and the other allusively and thematically brought out by Anibundel in her blog, Wolf Hall 3 & 4: A Man for all Seasons.
Mantel’s Wolf Hall performs the function of recent sequels to classic fiction and revisions of consensus histories; she asks us to switch our allegiances to the victimized, conquered, castigated and stigmatized lives of traditional histories and in so doing discover the tragedy going on is one where the subaltern figures are us. In this case these figures include several of the hitherto despised and dismissed women of Henry VIII’s court and his low-born secretary, Thomas Cromwell. My feeling is Mantel came to her very project, her very choice of historical span, by way of so many women’s identification with Anne Boleyn, and added to her Mary and Jane Boleyn, Mary Tudor (Lily Lesser) re-seen (as the product of a neurotic relationship of a profoundly sexually twisted man and woman, Henry VIII & Katharine of Aragon). Thomas Cromwell she came to by way of her insight of the deep evils religion (in her case, originally Roman Catholicism) promotes and disciplines people to enact.
My favorite moments are when Rylance as Cromwell speaks truth to religious hypocrisy as when he follows Benjamin Whitlow as Bishop Warham upstairs to let him know he, Cromwell, understands, the games Waltham is playing using Elizabeth Barton:
Cromwell; “Archbishop Warham. This um, prophetess you harbour in your diocese – Eliza Barton? How is she getting on?
Warham: “What do you want, Cromwell?”
Cromwell: “Well, I hear that she’s telling people that if the King marries Lady Anne, he has only a year to reign. I just wondered who is controlling her.”
Warham: “She may be a simple country girl but she has a genuine gift.”
Cromwell: “She does, doesn’t she? I hear she can tell you where your dead relatives are. If it’s in Heaven, she speaks with a higher voice, if in Hell, with a deep voice.”
The episodes are entitled Anna Regina and Devil’s Spit, both of which refer to women, the first obviously Anne’s coronation and the second Elizabeth Barton (Aimee Ffion Edwards] a burningly spiteful self-deluded woman at the close burnt at a stake, whose spit or uttered prophecies were used by the Catholic faction at court to try to frighten Henry VIII from removing from positions of power adherents of the Italian and German circles of power and marrying Anne Boleyn. Across the two episodes we travel with Cromwell: in the first he begins with attempting to reason with the losers, Katharine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley) and her painfully awkward daughter (to whom Cromwell shows an instinctive pity):
to listening to Mary, Anne’s sister’s self-directed description of Anne’s manipulation of Henry’s insecure aroused sexual desire, her thwarting of him, Anne’s overwrought bargains:
Towards the end of the third part he is the first to notice Anne’s propensity to flirt too much with other men beyond Henry and arouse Henry’s ominous anxiety during dancing, hears their quarreling raised to a pitch that leads to an old-fashioned bethrothal. Henry had demanded sex after that flirtation with another man. Mary comes out and seeks a Bible; they pledge themselves off stage and we are to imagine consummation (this was a recognized form of marriage before 1753). We glimpse the wedding itself at first in Calais and then the crowning in Westminster.
But Anne’s fall from power doesn’t take much longer than that of her sister, both more watched and in invisible prisons than we or they are aware: by the middle of the fourth episode, a Boleyn male spy is there to stop Mary (Charity Wakefield) from kissing Cromwell; by the the close of part 4 Anne’s dog has been thrown from the window, and she has bled on the floor, miscarried a second time.
It’s easy to miss how many women’s lives are wholly epitomized in a few shots: Alice More (Monica Dolan) whose guarded face appeals to Cromwell as she cannot reach her husband, some complicit in evil thinking (deludedly) they can save themselves (e.g., Margaret Countess of Salisbury, Pole’s aunt [Janet Henfrey] later beheaded), or are exceptions because seemingly virtuously superior (Jane Seymour, played by Kate Phillips).
I am most drawn to those who recognize there is no safety and act out of this inner apprehension for others: say the interspersed touching moments between Cromwell and Johanne, through or in her his memories of Liz and his daughter with her peacock angel wings (ghosts), none of them can he reach:
Anibundel’s analogy for Cromwell is that of a fixer, but in the stories of these women he is helpless to fix their lives, and he appears to want to help them help themselves by the good advice he gives them (as well as the young male studs around Mary). He is himself a subject, dependent on the unlimited power of a near madman whose eyes (those of Damien Lewis) are fearfully threatening, fierce, glitter at us while the inner thoughts of the brains we think of as behind the eyes remain opaque:
Mantel’s reconstruction of Cromwell in Wolf Hall, her rehabilitation of him comes from seeing him in terms of all these women at the court. If you go on to read even sympathetic historical accounts of him (e.g. Tracy Boorman’s biography) in the provinces where he successfully manipulated local powerful men by rewarding and punishing them through property arrangements, criminal charges dependent on the new Anglican church laws, customs, doctrines, you have to infer he drove these middle men to destroy and execute the local abbots or any priests who got in their way. The man Bolt and others have characterized as ruthlessly ambitious, and willing to kill, organizing from afar terrifying executions is glimpsed only fleetingly. The criminal aspect of Cromwell’s character is also more in evidence in Bring Up the Bodies where he will take a woman (innkeeper’s wife) casually, have her husband destroyed, remembers murderous acts he participated in in the past.
Part 4 is indeed a rewrite of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, to the point where speeches that Bolt plucked out of the historical records are re-plucked but uttered in contexts that reverse or at least significantly alter their significance. I was riveted by this as someone who has watched both movies of the original play several times: there was another beyond Fred Zinnemann’s with Scofield as More, Leo McKern as Cromwell, Wendy Hiller as Alice, John Hurt as Richard Rich; this other less-known A Man for All Seasons starred Charlton Hester as More, Corin Redgrave as the cynical allegorical ordinary man, and Vanessa Redgrave (memorably as a terrified Anne in way over her head). I also still admire More from having read his deeply humane analytical original Utopia, his Dialogue of Comfort during a time of Tribulation, his sardonic poetry, and his friend Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (in Latin translation it means praise of More as a holy fool dangerous to himself in his idealism). Much in More’s life resembles that of Cromwell as middling men in Parliament; both were instruments of Henry VIII.
In Bolt’s play all is done that can be done by More’s wife, daughter, son-in-law to persuade More to sign and live; Cromwell bullies and threatens, with Cranmore uttering the same rationalities. In Mantel and now Straughan, Cromwell takes over the humanity of the family. In Bolt’s trial it is Cromwell who engineers Rich’s betrayal; in Mantel it is Rich. Straughan’s 4th episode opens with More salivating over torturing someone, and again and again through dialogue and the burning and torture of other Protestants we are led to see More as the harmful fanatic. More’s utterance near the end that he has wished and done no man harm and if that cannot keep him alive, he’d rather not live (rendered famously by Scofield on the scaffolld), is answered here by Cromwell as they sit over a table by a list of people that Cromwell cites whom More has destroyed viciously. In the final scene of More’s beheading, in Mantel and Straughan there is only the pathos of a wretched narrow man.
Mantel is doing more than insisting on more accuracy about More and some justice to Cromwell. As Bolt was making a fable for the hopeful sixties where people could respond to figures who acted out ideals, so Mantel is taking the past and mirroring a deeply pessimistic disturbed era where we have seen much progress made in social and other areas of life over the course of the 20th century reversed. Popular and significant TV mini-series on commercial channels (Breaking Bad, Games of Thrones) portray utterly amoral characters in environments where there is no hope for humane solutions, with voyeuristic cruel violence an accepted sport. Henry VIII in Mantel’s Wolf Hall and this mini-series is a site representative of today’s ruthless militaristic and fascistic oligarchies, seemingly crazed armies of fanatic men determined to turn women into subject creatures. She is a deeply secular woman, for tolerance, feminist. I know her Eight Months on Gaza Street shows how fearful and helpless individuals and especially women can feel in Saudia Arabia where there is nowhere to turn for certain information about just about anything, and all action hinges on gaining the favor of powerful individuals.
I do ask myself where the power of this mini-series resides. Each time I rewatch it I think to myself it cannot be as good as I’ve remembered it, and each time it is. Is it in this vision? In the case of the famed Brideshead Revisited, one can point explicitly to a set of filmic techniques new and daring, or older and breaking with foolish taboos and conventions. If anything this is a kind of throw-back to the staged days of the 1970s. I wonder if it’s in the stillness and slowness of the filmography, how much time is left for each shot.
I come back to the use of Rylance as POV and his uncanny ability to convey complicated layers of thought in different scenes with these highly theatrical characters in situations of deep crisis strain, to seem outside the action and questioning it. The character he plays, Cromwell, is himself deeply complicit, compromised and comprising — rising, becoming wealthier, powerful, using his nephew and ward, Rafe as spies. He says at one point, now it’s his turn to get back. He participates in the neurotic fights of the Boleyns. He may tells Henry Percy (then drunk) the day of the power of the thug warrior-aristocrat as all-powerful is over: that the world also works on money, that bankers are in charge (this seems a bit anachronistic, you’d think the Italian bankers were turned into today’s European Union and World Bank).
Cromwell: “My lord, you’ve said what you have to say. Now listen to me. You’re a man whose money is almost spent. I’m a man who knows how you’ve spent it. You’re a man who has borrowed all over Europe. I’m a man who knows your creditors. One word from me, and all your debts will be called in.”
Percy: “What are they going to do? Bankers don’t have armies.”
Cromwell: “Neither will you, without any money. My lord, you hold your earldom from the King. Your task is to secure the north, to defend us against Scotland. If you cannot ensure these things, the King will take your land and your titles and give them to someone who will do the job that you cannot do.”
Percy: “No, he won’t. He respects all ancient titles.”
Cromwell [his expression conveys how dense Percy is and how laughable the idea that Henry respects any titles]: “How can I explain this to you? The world is not run from where you think it is. From border fortresses. Even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon. From wherever the merchant ships set sail off into the west. Not from castle walls, from counting houses. From the pens that scrape out your promissory notes. So believe me when I say that my banker friends and I will rip your life apart. And then, when you are without money and title, yes, I can picture you living in a hovel, wearing homespun, bringing home a rabbit for the pot. Your lawful wife, Anne Boleyn, skinning and jointing that rabbit. Yes, I wish you all happiness”
Percy has no credit card you see.
The fascination may come from the puzzle and elusive depths of suggestion. The series can suddenly speed up. Just as the fourth episode seems to come to an end and Cromwell is in the crowd watching More being beheaded, his memory becomes a series of flashbacks, he as a boy in More’s house where More was a boy. Then we see More about to be beheaded (unflinching scene) and Cromwell the older man watching.
Then the camera moves and sees Johanne watching Cromwell deeply ill in bed, sweating, hysterical, seemingly traumatized. We enter his mind as he glimpses his second daughter (not the one with the angel wings, but the one who wanted to learn Greek and marry Rafe).
He says aloud if he’s dying there are things he needs to tell Gregory (his son), Then a patch of sunlight on his bed, Liz (Natasha Little) his wife knotting,
Cromwell: “Slow down, so I can see how you do it.”
Liz: “I can’t slow down. If I stop to think how I’m doing it, I won’t be able to do it.”
The camera again moves, we hear words about an itinerary, which ends at Wolf Hall and out from the corridor comes yet another set of people, the Seymours.
By the end of this second act (fourth episode), we are back in the era of the all frighteningly powerful tyrant, and Cromwell seems to glimpse Anne’s waning power and glimpses the wary alert presence of Jane Seymour as a possible fall-back position as Henry must be pleased and wants a son.