‘Shardlake’ series review: A thrilling Tudor-era whodunit

A still from ‘Shardlake’ 

We obviously cannot have enough of the Tudors! There is the excellent Wolf Hall based on Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novels, the techno and rap-infused Blood Sex & Royalty, the rather annoying Anne Boleyn and the original bodice-ripper The Tudors with Jonathan Rhys Meyers making for an incendiary Henry and Henry Cavill burning up the screen as Charles Brandon.

There were movies too including A Man for All Seasons, Anne of the Thousand Days, Henry VIII and The Other Boleyn Girl.

Shardlake

Episodes: 4

Run time: 47 to 54 minutes

Director: Justin Chadwick

Starring: Arthur Hughes, Sean Bean, Anthony Boyle, Babou Ceesay, Paul Kaye, Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, Matthew Steer, Brian Vernel, Peter Firth, Irfan Shamji, David Pearse, Miles Barrow, Mike Noble, Kimberley Nixon

Storyline: When a Commissioner in charge of closing a monastery is murdered, Cromwell orders the lawyer Shardlake to investigate

While most of the above deal with royalty, Shardlake, based on C. J. Sansom’s bestselling novels, deals with regular people whose lives are also immeasurably changed by the political maneuvering happening in high places. England in 1537 is a scary place to be. It is a year since Anne Boleyn has been executed, Henry VIII has broken with the church in Rome and declared himself the head of the church.

It is the time of the dissolution of monasteries. The King’s Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell (Sean Bean) has appointed commissioners to investigate the monasteries and close them at sign of any wrongdoing — real or perceived. When one of Cromwell’s commissioners, Robin Singleton, is killed at St Donatus, a monastery in the port town of Scarnsea, in Sussex, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake (Arthur Hughes) is sent to find the truth and shut down the monastery.

There is pressure from every side, including from the good-looking Jack Barak (Anthony Boyle), ostensibly an assistant to Matthew, who could probably be a spy for Cromwell. Alice (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis) who works in the infirmary with Brother Guy (Irfan Shamji) might or might not know something. There is also poor Simon Whelplay (Joe Barber), a novice, beaten and starved for his clumsiness, who tries to tell Matthew his great secret.

A still from ‘Shardlake’ 

A still from ‘Shardlake’ 

Goodhap (Matthew Steer), the commissioner who was with Singleton at St Donatus, is terrified out of his wits and wants to leave at the first opportunity. Once prosperous, the people of Scarnsea are now poor and have turned to smuggling and assorted crimes to eke out an existence.

The magistrate, Copynger (Tadhg Murphy) promises help to both Cromwell’s men as well as Norfolk (Peter Firth). The bursar, Brother Edwig (David Pearse) insists his books are in order though Matthew is convinced following the money; in this case, the land sale deeds will uncover the killer.

Like all good murder mysteries, as Matthew uncovers the truth, he has to face up to unpleasant facts as well. Though he starts off believing firmly in the reform and Anne Boleyn’s guilt, there are people including the tortured Brother Jerome (Paul Kaye) who make him question his belief. Cromwell does not set his mind at rest either with equivocation and half truths.

Shardlake brings to mind that other murder-mystery set in a monastery, The Name of the Rose, based on the Umberto Eco novel, where Sean Connery unfortunately did uncover much mayhem in the monastery. Four episodes are just right to provide layers, set the scene and come to a satisfactory resolution. Hughes makes for an excellent Shardlake with his intelligence, principles and sensitivity to his outsider status, due to his job and his kyphosis. Bean makes for stately and sinister Cromwell. 

Sansom wrote seven novels featuring Shardlake, and further seasons seem to be indicated with the introduction of Barak instead of Mark Poer as in Dissolution, the first novel, which the series is based on. For fans of period dramas, specifically the Tudors, and atmospheric whodunits, Shardlake provides a triple treat.

Shardlake is currently streaming on Disney+Hotstar

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