'Shardlake' is a Rootin' Tudor-in' Good Time

Arthur Hughes, Sean Bean, and Anthony Boyle in 'Shardlake's key art

Arthur Hughes, Sean Bean, and Anthony Boyle in 'Shardlake's key art


You don’t hear much about the dissolution of the monasteries these days, but you certainly do hear about Anthony Boyle. Co-starring in his third stylish television project of 2024, the Irish actor may have turned more heads in Masters of the Air and Manhunt, but his supporting role as an upstart agent of Thomas Cromwell during Henry VIII’s aggressive protestant refurbishment of England cements him as an actor of charm and presence, especially in historical productions.

But Boyle isn’t the main focus in Shardlake, a 4-part Hulu adaptation of Dissolution, the first book in the late C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake Tudor mystery series – his character Jack Barak doesn’t even turn up til the second book. He’s been retrofitted here because his sparky, sparring dynamic with the titular lawyer and Cromwellian investigator Matthew Shardlake (Arthur Hughes) offered more compelling conflict for a series that, we assume, intends to adapt Sansom’s entire series in compressed, 4-hour chunks. Think of Shardlake as the Tudor version of Slow Horses, with a bit less forced humor and endearing characters, but just as much clunky thriller plotting, and you’ll have a good time.

But back to the dissolution of the monasteries: from 1536, Henry VIII’s Church of England began to disband, dissolve, and liquidate all Catholic church bodies, including monasteries, convents, or anywhere where Catholic believers could hoard land, wealth, or power. Like a lot of religious reforms, this was hugely motivated by a desire to lay claim to the church’s vast influence; while the Catholic Church of the 16th century was just as awful as you’d expect it to be, its suppression across England in the Tudor era couldn’t reasonably be described as altruistic. Between Shardlake and Shōgun, Hulu is this year’s home of anti-papist media.

Sean Bean as Thomas Cromwell giving Shardlake his assignment in 'Shardlake'

Sean Bean as Thomas Cromwell in 'Shardlake'

Adrienn Szabo/© 2022 Disney+, Inc.

One of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners has been murdered in a Catholic monastery refusing to close, so Cromwell (Sean Bean) sends Shardlake and Bakar to St Donatus monastery to identify the culprit but, most importantly, use the murder to force the abbot to hand over its assets to the crown. Shardlake is physically disabled (what Tudors called a “crookback,” he walks with a hunch, and actor Hughes has radial dysplasia affecting his right arm) and, being ineligible for the priesthood has dedicated himself to matters of research and reason. But a methodology that centers on justice doesn’t totally align with one that prioritizes claiming papist wealth. 

The tension between what Shardlake’s superiors want and where his conscience is drawn is only moderately touched on throughout the brisk season, but when it’s addressed – largely in one tumultuous and delicious Cromwell confrontation late in the game, where Bean uses his second of two scenes in the entire show to go snarling villain mode – it’s delightful intrigue. 

The suspects at St Donatus are plentiful – and played by a range of recognizable British and Irish small-screen faces like Babou Ceesay, Paul Kaye, David Pearse, and Brian Vernel – and when more bodies turn up strangled, poisoned, or drowned, the energy directed towards the Protestant agents only gets more toxic. But though Shardlake immerses you in a tactile and historically volatile period of English history with enthusiasm, the mechanics of the mystery plotting are neglected. By all accounts, Sansom’s novels are immersive page-turners, filled with period flavor and delightful suspense, but the series written by Stephen Butchard and directed by Justin Chadwick bounces from one plot revelation to another without rigorous detective work.

Babou Ceesay as Abbot Fabian staring into the middle distance in his chambers in 'Shardlake' Season 1

Babou Ceesay as Abbot Fabian in 'Shardlake' Season 1

Adrienn Szabo/© 2022 Disney+, Inc.

The brothers at St Donatus all maintain a uniform silence against their investigators, rejecting the idea that the killer comes from their ranks and refusing to acquiesce any power to the crown – that is, except for two or three sympathetic or ostracized monks afflicted by illness or othered by the Catholic ranks, who are predispositioned to assist Shardlake. Often, the mystery progresses too easily, with not enough forceful tension pushing back, and what probably feels like a complex and surprising resolution to the novel feels anticlimactic and cluttered in episode 4’s closing moments.

What makes Shardlake interesting is seeing how a detective, especially one keenly aware of the social and political strata of Tudor life, navigates an England that stresses national and religious fielty but is still gripped in self-interest. Shardlake calls out selfishness, uses his connections to flatter, and extends empathy to unlikely places in a way that doesn’t make him a crime-fighting chameleon, but does make him an interesting perspective to dig into his country’s sickness – especially as the season focuses on one Anne Boleyn-shaped injustice to nail to the wall. 

Ultimately, the recognizable faces and more romantic characters, like Boyle’s Bakar, fall by the wayside as Hughes’ Shardlake and his embittered scowl draw us in. The teething problems in adapting Sansom’s first novel will hopefully subside as the series gains more confidence, and under Shardlake’s scrutinous eye and with plenty of meaty historical detail, Shardlake’s prospects are promising.

All episodes of Shardlake are streaming on Disney+ globally and on Hulu for those who subscribe to it as a standalone service in the U.S. 

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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