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“Shardlake” reviewed

C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake has just been adapted into a series. Shardlake is a man made solitary and aware of suffering by his physical disability (he is despised as a “crookback” by society and was prevented from entering the priesthood because he “was not made in God’s image”). He works as a lawyer in the service of Henry VIII via Thomas Cromwell (initially – he survives longer than many of his employers, and indeed sovereigns), just as the dissolution of the monasteries gets under way. Shardlake on screen does not let fans of Sansom down.

The show was filmed mainly in Hungary, Austria and Romania and the aesthetics are mean, moody and entirely magnificent. The backdrop, and especially the grandeur of the enormous monastery – an amalgam of the medieval Kreuzenstein Castle outside Vienna and the gothic Hunedoara Castle in Transylvania – where most of the monk-murder-mystery action takes place imparts a sense not just of the scale of Henry’s plans for the country’s religious houses, and religion itself, but the absolute audacity of such an undertaking.

And what of the action? Matthew Shardlake (Arthur Hughes) is withdrawn from his ordinary lawyerly duties and dispatched by Cromwell (Sean Bean, delivering all the goods in the short screen time allocated) to investigate the murder by decapitation of one of his commissioners, who had been sent to the St Donatus monastery in the decaying port town of Scarnsea to begin the process of stripping and selling it for parts. The monks claim he must have been killed by “an invader”. But, as they all look deeply suspicious and every single one has a motive for killing the man sent to disband them, this we do not believe.

Shardlake is accompanied, forcibly, by Cromwell’s henchman Jack Barak (Anthony Boyle, in the kind of sidekick role I suspect we shall not see him in much longer, since the success of his recent roles in Manhunt and Masters of the Air). Barak’s focus is on the undoing of the monastery and the passing of its wealth to the king, while Shardlake has his mind set on the identity of the murderer and justice for the dead man. They butt heads accordingly as the investigation unfolds.

The suspects include, but are not limited to: the abbot himself (Babou Ceesay), who squats like a fat spider at the centre of a web of spiritual and financial corruption; Brother Edwig (David Pearse), the monks’ bursar, though we are assured he was away on business the night of the murder; Brother Mortimus (Brian Vernel), a former soldier with an obvious temper and, possibly, more secrets to hide than most; Brother Jerome (Paul Kaye), a disturbed Carthusian monk to whom the Benedictines are giving temporary succour, and who believes Anne Boleyn was murdered by lies – so clearly no fan of the king or his commissioners; and finally, the as-yet-unidentified hooded figure, who hangs around the church roof and upon whom Shardlake has not yet been able to lay hands.

One person who does seem to have some useful information is the much-abused novice Simon Whelplay (Joe Barber), a “simpleton” (according to his brutal brothers in Christ) who sees and hears more than he should. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to say that he is soon rendered incapable – by person or persons unknown – of passing on what he knows, so clearly marked for death is he from the moment we see him quivering in fear by a dropped flagon of wine.

The plot unfolds with brisk efficiency, with enough exposition – lightly worn – to keep those who are new to Tudor politics up to speed without ruining it for those who already know their reformists from their recusants, and enough unexpected (to those who do not know the books) twists to keep interest thoroughly piqued throughout. Shardlake is prone to delivering dramatic monologues, when alone in his bedroom, usually as he divests himself of the painful brace he wears to help him manage life with scoliosis. But this is to quibble with an otherwise hugely well-executed and enjoyable (I forgot to mention Peter Firth having a whale of a time as the villainous Duke of Norfolk!) addition to the Tudor drama canon.