Shardlake review: Arthur Hughes is a powerful presence – both brittle and resilient

British schoolchildren are only really taught about three periods of history. The Second World War, naturally, the Industrial Revolution, inexplicably, and Tudor England, thankfully. The last is a source of gratitude because, in its twists and turns, its heroes and villains, the story of Tudor England stands alongside Renaissance Florence and Julius Caesar’s Rome as one of history’s great canvases. A smart place to set a whodunit, then, as Disney+ have done with a new four-part series, Shardlake.

Matthew Shardlake (Arthur Hughes) is a shrewd lawyer in the employ of Thomas Cromwell (Sean Bean), the close confidant, and scarcely leashed pitbull, of Henry VIII. When one of Cromwell’s dogsbodies is brutally murdered in a remote monastery he has been sent to inspect, Shardlake is dispatched as the king’s official inquisitor. But when Shardlake and sidekick Jack Barak (Masters of the Air’s Anthony Boyle) arrive at Scarnsea, they find a community racked not just by the pain of the dissolution process, but by a violent current rippling within their midst. “This house is rotten to the core,” Barak observes, as the bodies get brought up.

What makes Shardlake unusual – both in the way that his character operates within this vision of Tudor England, and in terms of his bearing as the protagonist of a glossy Disney+ serial – is his standing as a “crookback”. Almost two decades after Kenneth Branagh was lined up to play Shardlake in a television adaptation (which fell through, with Branagh preferring the Nordic tones of Wallander), social mores have changed. Hughes, who has radial dysplasia of his right arm, is a powerful presence not just in his embodiment of the astute Medieval detective, but in how his casting demonstrates the changing times. He imbues Shardlake with a brittle yet resilient streak. “I cannot wear a codpiece that would catch the eye,” he laments in a tortured, and rather hammy, soliloquy. “While others are noted for their something, I am noted for my gait.”

Based on the first of a series of novels written by CJ Sansom, the British author who died, in what his agent called “an extraordinarily strange coincidence”, earlier this week, Shardlake is a pleasing mixture of historical fiction and detective tropes. Hughes and Boyle fling themselves into their roles with great gusto, chewing up dialogue which is, at times, more waffle than Wolf Hall. While Bean makes fleeting appearances as Cromwell (never quite matching the wiliness of Mark Rylance’s performance in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s books), the drama is largely separated from court intrigue. And so, the history takes a backseat to the whodunnit, as monk after monk falls victim to some malign presence. Shardlake has the sort of brooding, masculine presence that is something of a trope in modern detective series (Broadchurch, True Detective, Luther etc), but more interesting in this setting, while Barak exists as a foppish foil.

That all works well enough, as does the sense of meritocratic upward mobility that is a throughline in the Tudor period. Both Shardlake and Barak are outcasts, accelerated through society by Cromwell, himself a reformed guttersnipe. Less convincing is the plot itself, which is confusingly labyrinthine, favouring a conveyor belt of cryptic cameos over a selection of well-deployed clues. The sense of place, too, which might have been so starkly rendered, falls a bit flat. Interchangeable habited figures skulk through the shadows of the Scarnsea monastery but neither the natural geography of their position on the Sussex coast nor the proximity to the festering streets of London is fully rendered. Viewers who find that modern television tends to be too dark will have to squint to follow some of the candlelit (at best) sequences.

“Precision is what’s required,” Cromwell tells Shardlake, as he sends him off on this mission. But precision is, in a way, what Shardlake lacks. The premise is excellent and the set-up compelling; the trio of Shardlake, Barak and Cromwell a satisfying guide through the savagery of 16th-century England. But once the murders start and the focus turns to a community tormented by an unknown killer, the show slips into something muddier and more generic. Stabilising the scales between history and mystery is a challenge, then, and one that Shardlake just barely balances.