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Wolf Hall. Concluding Thoughts. Oh for the Love of God could they not have slowed it down a bit?

February 26, 2015


So, last night we got to see the Fall of Anne Boleyn. And the Fall of Madonna as well, if we were channel hopping.

The actual execution was managed very well, although the Queen’s truncation served as an emblem of the other crueller truncations that the viewer experiences as the drama continues.

The pace of this Wolf Hall (+ Bring Up The Bodies) adaptation accelerates dramatically as it reaches its conclusion, and by the end you’re clinging on for dear life. Much has been lost on the way. Hilary Mantel is obviously an appreciative reader of Wyatt’s poetry (as indeed we all should be) and makes Cromwell equally appreciative. Cromwell’s determination to save Wyatt from the Boleynapocalypse is one of the most absorbing features of Bring Up The Bodies. But the Beeb did not stage any of Cromwell’s scenes with Wyatt, scenes which describe someone who is as anxious to save someone worth saving as he is to dispose of the disposable.

Norfolk gets lost a bit towards the end too. Which is a special disappointment when you have Bernard Hill at your disposal. Hill’s Norfolk (who is very much Mantel’s Norfolk) exhibits the true coarseness and crudity of aristocratic entitlement. Norfolk’s potty mouthed swaggering is a true specimen of the gentry’s contempt for any external standard of conduct. Indeed “gentility” in Wolf Hall is always represented as a standard better represented by those who have had to fight to attain it.

The speed with which Anne Boleyn falls in this BBC adaptation is quite dizzying. I think another two episodes were called for just to do this process proper justice. In the novel, it is almost impossible to locate the precise tipping point which seals her doom. This is one of the things that makes Mantel such a compelling political novelist. Agency is a confused notion. Cromwell does not mastermind Boleyn’s death – he merely sees further than most. She is set upon a path that will lead to the block (or rather, to a French swordsman who guarantees you the quickest execution that 16th century Europe has to offer) and there comes a point where this path becomes irreversible. The point of no return is almost impossible to determine – but Cromwell has a sense of it.

Cromwell can do nothing without Henry, but Henry can see nothing through, given his inability to commit to any sustained project. Henry is all agency and Cromwell is all execution. Cromwell is aware of a shift of energy within the Nenrician court that makes some things possible and other things impossible. Once Anne Boleyn’s fate appears to be sealed (with or without Cromwell), it is for Cromwell to take charge of this fate and make it as efficiently humane (or humanely efficient) as possible. It is Cromwell who can determine the scope of the upheaval – who can be save and what manner of people can and should be dispatched. Cromwell and Mantel sidestep the issue of whether these adulteries “really” took place, and instead considers the sort of more broadly guilty individuals whose lives are perhaps more broadly forfeit.

The BBC adaptation makes a choice to spend more time on Anne Boleyn’s death and ignore the deaths that immediately preceded it. Which is understandable but a shame, given that Anne Boleyn could have witnessed the crowds and the drumroll and the shouting from her Tower window.

There’s a nice conclusion to the drama when Cromwell is hugged at the end, folded to a royal bosom – owned as much as embraced, and Mark Rylance’s face registers the full measure of his appropriation. He’s a man who has done a dirty job, but who knows that others would have performed such dirty jobs in a dirtier fashion. But is there any version of the “self” that can survive the endless repetition of dirty jobs whose political necessity fails to launder them in the mind and the memory?

Eventually, Hilary Mantel will publish her third novel and Cromwell will meet his conclusion. I just hope that when the BBC get hold of that novel, then they don’t cut it and Cromwell too short and too quickly.

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