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‘Shardlake’ review: A Tudor-era murder mystery on Hulu

Nina Metz – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Historical procedurals are expensive to make and therefore all too rare on television. Enter the Tudor-era murder mystery “Shardlake” on Hulu, set during the reign of Henry VIII and adapted from the first book in a series by C.J. Sansom (who died over the weekend at 71) about an English barrister named Matthew Shardlake.

The best whodunits set a century or three in the past tend to come from outside the U.S., including the French series “Nicolas Le Floch” (which I mentioned recently in my review of Apple’s “Franklin”) about a rakish 18th-century crime-solving police commissioner, and Sweden’s “Anno 1790” about another rakish 18th-century crime-solving commissioner (sensing a trend?) who uses his medical training to unravel various whodunits.

Alas, “Shardlake” doesn’t rise to the level of its predecessors. It has a delicious premise, but is ultimately somewhat limpid. Instead of a case-of-the-week structure, the season centers on a single story stretched out over four episodes. The year is 1536 and King Henry has broken with the Catholic Church. The dissolution of the monasteries is in full swing and Matthew Shardlake is sent to a remote monastery by Thomas Cromwell (blink or you’ll miss him, played briefly by Sean Bean) where a man has been killed. Find out what happened, Cromwell says.

So Shardlake sets off. As someone occasionally points out, he has a curvature of the spine. Star Arthur Hughes adopts this physicality (visible in addition to Hughes’ own disability, radial dysplasia to one of his arms) and it’s in keeping with the spirit of the character as written. It also feels like a potent reminder that disabled people have always existed. Even in prominent positions in the 1500s. All the same, Shardlake encounters periodic nastiness; without Cromwell’s backing, someone tells him, “you’re a crook back of no importance.” Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Hughes is terrific in the role, juggling the egos of powerful men with a stubborn, cagey stare. In private, Shardlake is less composed, muttering “Fool!” when he’s missed this detail or that. “The people have been exploited for long enough,” Cromwell tells him, paving the way for just a different kind of exploitation. The monasteries are to close, their wealth surrendered to the crown. This murder is a minor inconvenience to that end, but one that needs tending nevertheless. Shardlake is a Cromwell supporter at the outset — he would need to be just to survive — but soon enough he’s forced to contemplate the brutal lies done in the king’s name, including the manufactured crimes that justified the beheading of Anne Boleyn.

A quasi-bodyguard named Jack (Anthony Boyle) accompanies Shardlake — or maybe he’s more chaperone, or spy even — and the pair become an unlikely duo. Jack is there on Cromwell’s orders, though Shardlake isn’t pleased. He’d prefer to choose his own assistant. Jack smirks: “I’m not your assistant.”

Jack is a bolder personality and he provides a compelling contrast to Shardlake’s more contemplative approach, but this potentially complimentary oil-and-vinegar dynamic isn’t explored enough to justify Jack’s presence, even if his extracurricular activities with the one woman at the monastery prove vital to the plot. (Boyle seems to be in everything at the moment, including “Masters of the Air” and “Manhunt,” both on Apple.)

The season feels weirdly both too short and too long, lacking enough story to fill out four hours. A good mystery needs intrigue and defined personalities, and a historical mystery needs world-building that goes deeper than period-appropriate costumes and dialogue. In short, it needs to be interesting and rich. Fun, even. “Shardlake” has much potential, but the monks populating the story — who function less as characters than human scenery — prove to be too stolid to function as true foils.



2 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-14

How to watch: Hulu


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