Monday, May 11, 2015

Cutting off Cromwell's Story at the End of "Wolf Hall"

Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, ended last night on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre with Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII's arms after the execution of Anne Boleyn. Henry is very happy; Cromwell looks stunned.

Nancy Bilyeau provides her as usual excellent review and analysis here. I agree with this comment from The New York Times review by Louis Bayard:

Mantel is currently writing the last volume of the “Wolf Hall” trilogy, and I can’t help but wish this superb production had waited to incorporate that final strand. The story, as it stands, is “complete” enough, but it lacks the full arc that Cromwell demands. We need to see him go to his end, not for the sake of retribution but for the sake of reckoning.

Bayard also emphasizes that, whatever modern heroism Hilary Mantel wants to impute to Thomas Cromwell, her protagonist has committed great acts of injustice and violence in this final episode. He may be doing it because the mockery of his former master Chancellor/Archbishop Thomas Wolsey at Court after Wolsey's death, or because his current master Henry VIII wants rid of Anne Boleyn. Cromwell has gone too far, as Bayard contends:

Until Sunday night’s episode, I think, a Cromwell apologist could have written off his actions — even his prosecution of Thomas More — as a kind of hard-edged Realpolitik, anchored to an innate sense of justice. No longer. As we watch Cromwell fasten his web around the lovesick musician Mark Smeaton (Max Fowler), we see an inner rot take hold. “I need guilty men,” he says to Norris. “So I found men who are guilty. Though not necessarily as charged.”

Cromwell knows he is perverting the system of justice in England in the service of the King. Remember the scene in A Man for All Seasons when Thomas More would give even the Devil the benefit of English Law? While Cromwell is approaching the heights of his power in Mantel's narrative, he will soon discover the results of destroying English justice and laws: without evidence of guilt, he will be attainted a traitor and sentenced to death--and Bayard is correct: as the BBC's Wolf Hall stands now it is incomplete, like Henry VIII's own play mentioned last night. He says he's written his own story in a tragedy. Henry has forgotten what happens to the hero of classical tragedy: he dies.

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