The final episode of this fantastic series starts with Anne served up on a table, appetites of all her enemies at the ready, and Cromwell at the head of the table brandishing the knife. It’s Cromwell’s vision of himself and the metaphor for what he’s about to do to the Queen. Thus the episode “Master of Phantoms” starts with the masterful Cromwell ushering us into the final movement of this riveting and memorable drama, colored in broad strokes by a pervasive sense of inevitability and doom.
The conceit with which Mantel started Cromwell’s mission within Henry’s court, that posse of gentlemen dramatizing leading beloved Worsley into hell, is now going to come to a head. That posse is going to get what’s coming to them, in a sequence of events perhaps a bit too convenient, but compelling nonetheless.
So we start: The King is bitter and hateful and cannot even look upon his wife showing off a freshly embroidered cap made especially for their little dumpling Lizzie with anything short of contempt.
Cromwell confers with his people and the people speaking for the King’s enemies and they all agree “We want the concubine ousted.” Ever the optimists, they say the “Seymour girl..favors religion..[and] may bring Henry back to Rome.” Ironic how much power they give the woman in the King’s bed! They’ve all seen, as we have, what’s happened to one of those women and we’re about to see what’s going to happen to the second. Did a woman make Henry leave the church, and will a woman bring him back, or are the women just easy justifications for his own fickleness?
Cromwell, ever the pragmatist, ignores the religious implications of what’s going down now. He’s asked “We hear you’re a Lutheran.” His flat response: “Me, no sir, I’m a banker.”
Meanwhile, Anne is getting clumsy. In a moment of boredom she decides to pick on her lyre player, Mark Smeaton. And then some ribald banter gets out of hand, and, oops, she’s said too much.
Her indiscretion is gladly affirmed by her conniving sister-in-law Jane Boleyn. What a fabulously believable turn by Jessica Raine as the bitter bridesmaid, never a bride, Jane Boleyn. How luscious her delivery of “She practiced on him, in the French way.”
The rumors reach the King. and. to his credit. he discusses it all in private with his Queen. We see the King’s chambers from a distance, his private life again seen through a window. And through that window we see Anne with hands in supplication. Begging her innocence, or begging forgiveness, we don’t know.
Cromwell gets his hands on Smeaton and a night with a phantom phantom is all the boy needs to spill the beans. He names names and Cromwell gets to work. Once he has all the information he needs, he sends word to the King. Henry gets the message and leaves abruptly from the joust.
Cromwell then kindly escorts the Queen to the Tower. Her face in concentrated grief, her delicate neck arching up towards the tower. She’s alive and curious about what’s happening, but her body is also communicating helplessness and resignation to her fate.
Back at Whitehall, Henry lounges on his fainting couch, lamenting his sad fate. “She deceived all of us….So many friends lost, alienated or worse..when I think of Wolesy, the way she practiced against him.” In masterful obfuscation, everything that has happened is someone else’s fault, never the fault of the man in charge. He laments and whines and says nasty things about this woman he loved, then brushes it off with an upbeat “I’ve written a play…a tragedy…my own story.”
Even though we can sense that play is a vast justification for his own actions, his own benign part in all of this, we are still teased by the idea of a King as a playwright. What a tease this is, because we’ve seen very little of the sensitive humanist Henry in this series. Where is the writer of plays, of poems, of songs, the educated worldly renaissance man, leader of men? Though we haven’t seen it, the way Damian Lewis carries this character makes us believe that that Henry did exist, somewhere deep beneath the corpulence and hubris and inevitable megalomania. The Henry of Wolf Hall is plenty hateful, but not entirely so, in large part due to the tiny flicker of vulnerability Damian Lewis inserts into the character. In an interview with PBS Damian Lewis said “the great sadness of Henry’s reign is that he killed the ones he loved”. He clearly played that sadness and tragedy of loss just as faithfully as he played the arrogance and monstrosity of never looking back.
The men who have been named as playing a part in corrupting the Queen are conveniently the same men who played at sending Worsley to hell. A huge creative license taken by Mantel no doubt, but an effective one to tie the story up with a nice bow. Norris is incredulous that it could be so simple, so petty: “That’s why? It was a play. It was a joke. You can’t seriously…” Cromwell responds, “I need guilty men Harry, so I found men who are guilty, though not necessarily as charged.” Cromwell gets his revenge and it doesn’t matter exactly what the men are guilty of, just that they are guilty. Cromwell’s ruthlessness has finally come to the fore.
In the Tower, Anne has communicated that staying in the same room she did before her coronation is too good for her. Wriothesley (“just call me Rizley”) deciphers that as a statement of her guilt. I’m with Damainista though in her assessment of why Anne says this. She is ashamed and humbled because she has failed. She’s failed at delivering the King of a son, of staying in his favor, of reigning the land as a beloved Queen instead of the reviled one she’s become. Anne is still as spirited as ever though, and perhaps a touch delusional, expecting the King to realize a mistake has been made and to release her. During the course of the conversation, when she knows that’s not going to happen, her hands again go up in supplication, this time begging Cromwell. Surely you don’t think me guilty Creme-well, she implores, ,breathless panic coloring her bird-like motions. Indeed, Claire Foy’s performance brilliantly manifests a bird: Anne first lit upon this King she loved and desired and wanted as her equal only to find herself trapped by him, her wings clipped, and Anne now poised to take flight again, one final time.
And then the trial. Cromwell reminds the congregation “we’ve never tried a Queen before”.Which is to say that the rules can be flexed, and, so, he manages to finagle a quick clean beheading instead of the much more painful burning at the stake. Cromwell, in a precognition of another precursor of the New World, the vow to arrive at justice without resorting to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The every-man Cromwell, just as he examined fruit trays before they were set out in reception halls and centerpieces, examines the planks of the execution block, and the sword. Anne enters her final scene absolutely having made peace with her fate, going about the Christian (actually all religions!) ritual of offering alms to those less fortunate than her. Offering alms, offering penance, a hope of trading in on the good thoughts and prayers from those she gives her coins to. She remains looking up at the Tower, holding on to hope of reversal of this fate. She says her speech, documented and therefore true to history: “I pray God save the King and send him long to reign over you.” This King who didn’t even bid his lady good bye. And what a bad-ass dude they cast for the executioner. Reminding one vividly of those who come out and do their duty to the realm during times of slaughter.”If she’s steady, she’ll know nothing. Between heart beats she knows nothing.” Anne’s fellow country man, a Frenchmen poises himself in the kingly stance, feet free of shoes, a stance wide apart and anchored to the ground, as he swings the blade. Then, on cue, the rain comes down to wash away the blood.
Finally, we see Henry post-mortem, post-release, after finally obtaining the freedom to procreate with a fresh uterus, that freedom he so desperately desired. His reaction to Anne’s demise says: Divorce, execution, same difference, I’m a free man and England is mine. To say that he’s lost his grip on reality is putting it mildly. He’s gone off the rails as far as being a humanitarian goes. We can only guess at how far out of his mind he’ll become in the next series. (And happily there WILL be a next series; the book is being written, and both Rylance and Damian are already committed to performing it). And how does Damian Lewis convey the crazy? With his eyes and with a smile. Henry looks absolutely insane in the last shot. How Damian Lewis get his eyes to convey “insane” is beyond me. One doubts it’s even conscious, yet it’s very present and translatable. The eyes vapid, unfeeling, emersed in an ideal world (dare we say, Utopia?) that no one else can see, where he is regent and father to a son worthy of regency.
Recently, I’ve noted a lot of British actors have a certain technique they like. It’s sort of a Cary Grant way of speaking a full page of dialogue without blinking. A method to show cleverness in a character as well as oratorical skill in an actor. Benedict Cumberbatch and Helen McCrory and many others, I’m sure, employ this technique to great success. But Damian Lewis didn’t go to the same school of acting. He knows how to use breath and hesitation and glances and his eyes and his body, in general, to convey thought. Is that method acting? I’m not really versed in the language of acting to know that it is. It’s the acting that most actors after Marlon Brando tried to emulate. A focus on real emotion and real human reaction instead of well-rehearsed oratory and flawless elocution. Brando, being all emotion, was a mumbler. A lot of actors who copied him became mumblers. But Damian Lewis, miraculously, combines the perfect enunciation of each syllable with a personal emotion, so palpable you can reach out and touch it. A combination rarely found in any modern actor.
Wolf Hall is a resounding triumph for all who had a hand in its making. I’ll be greatly surprised if it doesn’t sweep up next awards season.
NEXT POST: Method Acting, you say? Steve McQueen! And why Damian Lewis is perfect to play him.