“Put Thomas Cromwell in a dungeon and by evening he’ll be sitting on cushions with jailers owing him money”, said Thomas More to his wife. That’s the premise we are bought into. But how does Cromwell do it? What does it take for an underdog to make that leap from being a low born to not only gain the confidence of his King, but even puppeteer his rule? As Cromwell himself puts it, he’s like the tamed lion, you may stroke it, but beware the claws. Six hours of methodically paced story telling with manic attention to detail that ends with an majestic embrace informs us like none other.
Peter Straughan’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel and Peter Kosminsky’s direction gently places us in Thomas’ orbital of power politics played by the wonderful Mark Rylance. He is ably supported by the talents of Jonathan Pryce as his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, Anton Lesser as the stubborn Thomas More, and Damian Lewis as King Henry. And Claire Foy, with her beaded garments and supercilious presence, is a joy to watch as Anne Boleyn. Can’t wait to see her play Elizabeth in the upcoming series, The Crown.
The beauty of the show has been the fine straddling of the anti-hero timeline. Cromwell is at the centre piece of so many wrongs from his childhood shown to us in flashback mode. And he is correcting them one by one. But is he connecting those dots consciously? Does he realise or visualise them when one event triggers the other? Is he in control of this portion of his destiny, which is to become his legacy? Those painful moments compose and define what he turns into. One particular moment for example which keeps repeating itself in the show is the play where his ex-patron Wolsey is humiliated. Even when his hands are shivering wondering the prospect of losing out of favour with the King and having his head spiked, a glimpse into the play and its players makes him sure of the revenge that he needs to plot. The plan is not clear yet, but the motive is. This sinister side of Cromwell is deftly handled.
Most scenes are shot in the dark with only candles illuminating the place, and Thomas lurking somewhere, just like he prefers to be noticed for his deeds. And Henry is always in the limelight with his gorgeous royal presence, ambling around his palace yards like a peacock, making sure he matches his framed portraits in the palace. He is a bigger brute than Cromwell is, but you’d expect nothing less from a King. And Cromwell knows to be the snake his King wants him to be without ever turning into a viper in his master’s bosom. To top that, his master is his only “friend” in the whole country, rest either being paid informers or vengeful enemies plotting his decline. The ghost of Wolsey also reminds Cromwell once, “The King wanted a new wife. I didn’t get him one, and now I’m dead.”. This balance between high praise and poor death while keeping a poker-face is what makes this show a compelling viewing. This is television at its best.