On the day of execution, the prisoner is led out of the tower to a small stage in front of an eager crowd. The prisoner, a woman who once had the King of England under her thumb, looks pale and child-like. As she approaches the stage, trailed by her ladies-in-waiting, she opens her wallet and hands out coins to random spectators. She keeps glancing up at the tower, as if she expects some last-minute reprieve. In the audience is the king’s secretary Thomas Cromwell, who had engineered her rise to power then at the king’s behest, engineered her fall.
That is the penultimate scene of the BBC miniseries Wolf Hall, and this is not a spoiler—for nearly 500 years, people have known the outcome of that royal drama. What is admirable about Peter Straughan’s adaptation of the novels by Hilary Mantel is that we know exactly what’s going to happen, but we still lean forward and stare at the screen, drawn in by the almost-unbearable tension and the bleak beauty of the scene. Wolf Hall is so good, it is spoiler-proof.
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