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Wolf Hall: Perfect in execution right until the bitter end


Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)

Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)

Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)

REVENGE, as the old saying goes, is a dish best served cold. No chef has ever ladled it up with more chilly relish than Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell in the final episode of Wolf Hall.

Much has been made during the course of the series of Rylance’s underplaying: that quality of stillness he brought to the role which, if attempted by a lesser actor, might look horribly, self-consciously mannered.

In this throat-clutchingly tense finale, Rylance barely broke sweat, let alone raised his voice, as Cromwell went about getting rid of the surplus-to-requirements Queen, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), on the orders of Henry VII (Damian Lewis), who’s now turned his gaze on Jane Seymour as the woman to give him a son and heir.

Rylance let his piercing green eyes and those magnificently expressive eyebrows, which can suggest an ocean of emotions with barely a movement, do most of the work. On the odd occasion when Cromwell did lose his temper, the effect was explosive.

It was a measure of the performance that, even when Cromwell was playing dirty (and he was required to play very dirty indeed here), flickers of his humanity and compassion were still visible.

After manipulating a gormless, boastful lute player, who’d been bragging about his sexual exploits, real or imagined, with the Queen, into fashioning a noose for his own neck and a chopper for hers, Cromwell tells his heavies: “I don’t want him hurt. If we have to torture sad creatures like that, what next? Stepping on dormice?”

The lute player was, of course, a mere sucker. After a night spent in a dark room full of instruments of torture, he duly spilled his guts and pointed to every lord he could think of as one of Anne’s lovers.

Having been alerted by the Lady Mary Rochford (Jessica Raine) to Anne’s supposed adultery and supposed incestuous relationship with her own brother – “They can’t call it a bastard if it looks like a Boleyn” was her reasoning – Cromwell set about destroying Anne’s paramours, several of whom just happened to be those who’d earlier helped bring down his beloved Cardinal Wolsey.

In a superbly realised flashback, each of the men Cromwell is about to condemn to the executioner is shown removing a demon mask, having taken part in a play ridiculing Wolsey for Henry’s amusement, while

Cromwell lurks watchfully in the shadows.

The philistines who complained that Wolf Hall was too slow and too dark, too wordy and too complex would have been surprised at the speed with which this closing episode moved. Watching Cromwell manoeuvring his victims into a corner in to order to exact his long overdue retribution was electrifying.

But this was by no means Rylance’s show alone. Claire Foy was superb as the spiteful, manipulative Anne Boleyn – though she became pitiable in the end.

Thanks to Homeland, it’s easy to take Damian Lewis for granted and forget just how great an actor he is. As the vicious, capricious Henry, however, he reminded us just why he landed that high-profile part in the first place.

But you can’t lower the curtain on Wolf Hall without mentioning Peter Kominsky’s superb screenplay, based on Hilary Mantel’s novels. His concise dialogue, like Rylance’s eyebrows, conveys much with a minimum of strain.

“Anything that is made can be unmade,” Anne warns Cromwell early in the episode. We’re reminded of the line in the very last shot, as a beaming Henry envelops Cromwell in his monstrous embrace . . . for the moment. Magnificent.