Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Shardlake, on Hulu

In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell is the protagonist, but he is the bad guy in A Man for All Seasons. Which is more accurate? Matthew Shardlake would admit it is rather complicated, if you asked him privately. Of course, he would publicly proclaim the righteousness of Henry VIII’s powerful strategist, since the lawyer often serves as Cromwell’s unofficial investigator. Ostensibly, his latest assignment is a murder investigation in a not so reformist monastery, but his real job will be convincing the abbot to relinquish St. Donatus’s property to the Crown. Yet, the lawyer’s stubborn desire for genuine justice leads to danger in the four-part Shardlake, which premieres today on Hulu.

Shardlake is constantly underestimated, due to his spinal curvature, but Cromwell’s cocky lieutenant, Jack Barak, slowly learns better while accompanying the lawyer to St. Donatus. Somewhat awkwardly, Shardlake must sleuth out the killer of his predecessor, who was auditing the monastery on Cromwell’s behalf. His head was cleanly decapitated, but the murder weapon is missing.

Naturally, Shardlake and Barak get a frosty reception from Abbot Fabian and his Brothers because they fully understand their true purpose at the monastery. Relations grow even more testy when Shardlake openly rebukes the monks for cruelly bullying Simon Whelplay, a scrawny novice. Understandably, Shardlake identifies with the malnourished monk in training, so the subsequent murder of Whelplay further stokes his outrage.

is not at the level of The Name of the Rose, even though it clearly aspires to be. However, it is several cuts above the average episode of Cadfael. Series director Justin Chadwick skillfully mines the gothic setting for atmospheric chills. Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of C.J. Sansom’s novel retains all juicy English Reformational politics, including the execution of Anne Boleyn, which plays a pivotal role in the mystery.

To the producers’ credit, they walked the walk, as well as talked the talk, by casting Arthur Hughes (a thesp with radial dysplasia) as Shardlake. Beyond issues of authenticity, Hughes eloquently expresses the lawyer’s passion for justice and contempt for hypocrisy.

Frankly, Anthony Boyle (in his third major series this quarter, following
Manhunt and Masters of the Air) looks and sounds rather miscast as the supposedly swaggering Barak. However, Sean Bean is suitably gruff and imperious as Cromwell. Yes, he lives past the first episode, but he disappears for most of series, while the drama centers on St. Donatus.

The supporting cast is quite strong, especially Joe Barber as the distressingly vulnerable Whelplay. Character actor David Pearse truly looks monastic playing Brother Edwig, the bookkeeper. Among the sea of cowls and codpieces, Hilary Tones’s sensitive and earthy performance as Annie, the monastery’s housekeeper, nurse, and general utility servant, stands out in a positive way.

’s mystery is fairly complex. The title character is even more so. The four episodes allow sufficient time to develop the characters and intrigue, without representing a daunting commitment. Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, Shardlake starts streaming today (5/1) on Hulu.