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Novels

Cromwell the Serpent Makes an Appearance
New York Times, April 26, 2015

Part 4, "The Devil's Spit"

The more effectively historical fiction does its job, the more it blurs the lines between the known and the imagined. Watch Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," and you'll come away thinking Salieri spent his life sticking pins into Mozart. Watch Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," and you'll think the Salem witch trials could have been averted if John Proctor had received more lovin' at home. Watch "Wolf Hall," and you'll think Thomas More (Anton Lesser) could have sidestepped the executioner's blade if only as a teenager he had returned a lad's wave.

That encounter with the young Thomas Cromwell is, of course, fictional, but it's so pointedly inter-cut with the scene of More's execution that you'd be excused for concluding that, if More had just asked that lad up for a beer, the course of English history might have changed.

But then, that would have required both of those boys to change—or at least to merge their stations—and from the looks of things, that wasn't going to happen. Even in youth, More was a creature of the mind, lofting his thoughts to the stars, and Cromwell was a boy of the streets, wading through the muck and mire of the real.

Now it's possible that, in his rise to power, Cromwell (Mark Rylance) found time to gaze from balconies or, heaven help us, play on a recorder, but that's not where his value lies. He is, to quote Bishop Fisher (Richard Durden), "a ruffian." Or worse, if we're to believe King Henry (Damian Lewis): "Do you think I've promoted you for the charm of your presence? I keep you because you are a serpent."

That metaphor calls us back both to Genesis and to the previously told story of Cromwell's handling of snakes in Italy, but it also speaks to his serpentine finesse, which is superbly on view as he takes apart the conspiracy behind the prophetess Elizabeth Barton (Aimee Ffion-Edwards). One by one, he calls the guilty parties to justice in a cross-cutting sequence that recalls the famous climax of "The Godfather." With this key difference: Cromwell the assassin never raises his voice or rises from his chair. His only weapon, really, is omniscience ("Everything they do now, they do under my eye"). He shows his enemies how much he knows about them, and once they have accepted his mastery, he gives them their marching orders: "Grovel." "Fall ill." "Take to your bed."

This is the Cromwell the world expects (and fears): a man of deeds. So what happens when he encounters a man of ideas? For a time, nothing but stasis. The young Cromwell, on first meeting More, asks him what he's reading and receives this dismissive answer: "Words, just words." (Nearly identical to the reply Polonius gets from Hamlet.). But when the interrogator Cromwell encourages More to think of an oath to the king as mere "words," More's take on the concept reflects their altered relationship. "Ah," he sighs. "Just words."

By now it's clear: Words are More's currency. He can, at times, devalue them. ("If I say no to your oath, I put my body in peril; if I say yes, my soul. So I say nothing.") He can, at times, give them supremacy. ("All I have, all I won, is the ground I stand upon. That ground is Thomas More.") But words are his to wield, and that makes him an agony to his adversary. "Do you know what I hate most?" says Cromwell. More is "writing an account of today for all of Europe to read, and in it, we'll be the fools and oppressors and he'll be the poor victim with the better turn of phrase. He wrote this play years ago, and he sniggers every time I trip over my lines."

This can be read as one more dig at the hagiography of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons," in which More really does have all the best lines, but it also gets to the basic tension of tonight's episode, which could easily be subtitled "Plato vs. Machiavelli"—or, if you like, "Idealism (With All Its Horrors) vs. Pragmatism (With All Its Corruptions)."

It's no accident that the title of More's best-known work, "Utopia," literally translates as "nowhere." As the learned son of a knighted judge, he is both ferociously ambitious (as Cromwell has noted) and profoundly abstract. That's what allows him, in Hilary Mantel's rendering, to persecute heretics without a thought to their suffering, and that's what prevents him from bending when the political winds start blowing in a different direction.

As for Cromwell, he doesn't lack for intellect or culture. He's multilingual, a biblical scholar, and pals with artists like Hans Holbein (Thomas Arnold), but he doesn't believe ideas matter, unless they can be converted into deeds. In this regard, his intellectual soul mate is his frenemy Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), who has made the tactical error of giving birth to a daughter and then miscarrying her next child. For the first time, notes of panic register in those agate eyes. "I won't die," she declares. "I'll give the king a son, and I won't die." We know, of course, that neither of those statements is true. And maybe, just maybe, she's beginning to know that herself.

Fraught Symbol No. 1: The trail of blood leading to (and away from) Anne. Hard not to hear the after-echo of Norfolk's prophecy: "She'll spit blood!"

Fraught Symbol No. 2: Cromwell compares his boss to a tamed lion. "You can pet him. You can pull at his ears if you wish. But all the time you're thinking to yourself: Those claws. Look at those claws."

Most self-exposing simile: The Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill) likens a 20-year marriage to "placing your person inside a grizzled leather bag." Wonder if his wife would have used the same analogy.

Machiavelli would be proud: Intuiting that More will reveal himself more freely to someone he despises, Cromwell makes a point of sending Richard Riche (Bryan Dick) alone into the prisoner's cell. Or maybe Cromwell just intuits Riche will say anything to have More beheaded.

Other stuff ...

  • Loved seeing Cromwell pose for his now-famous Holbein portrait. If you revisit the actual painting, you'll see how Cromwell's actual face—in direct contrast to Rylance's—repels both sympathy and empathy. No wonder it took centuries to restore his reputation.

  • "Wolf Hall" has no shortage of world-class actors. In Part 4, Mr. Lewis was particularly good at conveying Henry's anguish over his lost child, and Mr. Lesser, without chewing a single piece of scenery, managed to (temporarily) erase memories of Paul Scofield. But I hereby grant thespian honors to Monica Dolan, who, in a few minutes of screen time, turns Alice More into a living, breathing, wounded thing. Though writ small, it's a performance that rivals Wendy Hiller's work in "A Man for All Seasons." (And what a brilliant line: "You've always been good to us. I wonder why.")

  • Finally, a tip of the hat to Ms. Mantel for titling an entire book after a place that the reader never, over the course of 600-plus pages, visits. Of course, she takes us there in the succeeding book, "Bring up the Bodies," and so has "Wolf Hall," the miniseries. Expect wolf howls before too long. (And remember how Count Dracula interpreted the sound: "Children of the night. What music they make.")

Questions: When is Mark, "that little sneak," going to come to plot fruition? Aren't you longing for more of the catty, unloved Jane Rochford (Jessica Raine)? What was with that strange fever-dream vision of Cromwell's dead wife weaving? ("If I stop to think how I'm doing it, I won't be able to do it.") And what is it about Tudor dress that makes every man look more virile?

See you at the Hall!



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Louis Bayard