Published on February 12th, 2015 | by Bean


WOLF HALL REVIEW – Episode 4 “Devil’s Pit”

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Any adaptation, be it of a popular novel or historical drama (let alone both), faces the challenge of how to retain the audience’s attention when the outcome is already known to many. The focus of “Devil’s Pit” centres around the beginnings of Queen Anne’s fall and the condemnation of Thomas More. Both stories have been told and retold in innumerable interpretations for over four hundred years. What can Wolf Hall bring to the table that hasn’t been said already?

With the inexorable demise of both viewed through the lens of Cromwell’s perspective, we are delivered a bias less prevalent in previous versions. His sympathies, though not ultimately his allegiance, do seem to lie with both problematic persons, and much is made of the lengths Cromwell goes to in an effort to save More from his own righteous obstinacy. While “A Man For All Seasons” casts More as the beleaguered hero, Cromwell is not blind to the cruelty and hypocrisy that share space with the high minded philosophies in the heart of his friend.


As Cromwell weeds out the traitors, proving again his invaluable qualities as a bullshit filter and master of getting it done, the Queen grows more anxious to exert her will. Forcing the King’s hand, and therefore Cromwell’s too, she reveals her barbaric leanings and is drawn up short by Cromwell’s refusal to employ torture to achieve her desires. His own methods draw similar results though, and he begins with the “Mad Nun of Kent” Elizabeth Barton, whose woeful ‘visions’ and pot-stirring against Henry and Anne earn her the hangman’s noose.


Henry’s impotence is plain in all this; he frequently makes placid utterances of disbelief at the treachery of those he thought friends. The only fervour he seems possessed of is the desire to secure the throne with a son. Whether or not he is physically “up to it” or not, the balance of power is askew in his relationship, and Boleyn wears the trousers.

Of course, she is dangerously over-extending her reach; her conviction that she will produce a son for Henry and that she will not die betrays her quite plausible fears more than her arrogance. After all, it’s only paranoia if you’re wrong, and we know how this one is going to play out. Fortunately Claire Foy’s fiercely wired performance grants the well-worn character appreciable vivacity and an absorbing quality.


The Serpent is a running theme in “Devil’s Pit”; the King calls Cromwell such, which is rich coming from the reptile-eyed Lewis. “Do not be a viper in my breast” he says, commanding obedience and destruction but wanting none of the ugly business on his hands. Whilst it is true that Cromwell is better equipped than most to absorb the sins of his peers, and carry out his duties with an eye always open for opportunities, the weight of his obligations finally take their toll in this episode. A visit from More’s wife to make a moving plea for her husband ends with another slight; “a man such as you”, and her grief is a burden he cannot bear.

Early release

There is a revealing moment, as Cromwell sits for his famous portrait, in which he seems so distractedly elsewhere. In said portrait, his eyes appear to linger upon something out of frame; Wolf Hall explains this to be the tapestry of Sheba that Cromwell associates with his lost love Anselma.  Holbein calls him on it, and jokes of his role as jailor. Rylance’s inscrutable glances linger not only on Anselma, but on Joan, from whom he truly craves comfort. Cromwell is ever reaching out to others, only to be turned from; even as a child to the adolescent More. Always alone.

Cromwell shoulders his responsibilities like Atlas carrying the world; when other bend their head he must bear witness. No sooner is More beheaded, than Cromwell runs a brutal fever. Ailing badly enough to rouse his own heir to his bedside, he likens the malady to the poison of a snake bite. It seems as if he must exorcise his guilt and sorrow at More’s execution before he can take on any further unsavoury tasks. Once the fever breaks though… There is a sadness and finality in the pregnant pause that Cromwell takes as he engineers the next move for his King’s best interests, and decides upon a visit to the house of Seymour at Wolf Hall.

Review by Nina Clark

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