History mystery

Published date07 May 2024
Publication titleSignal
AS the weather grows colder, the new adaptation of Shardlake arrives at the perfect time in New Zealand. To be watching the dark Tudor adventures of Shardlake in bright warming sunlight under blue skies would seem entirely wrong — and even more so with the news that C.J. Sansom, the author of the series of novels from which the new series is adapted, has recently died. The books were made to be read with the curtains closed against the elements and by a roaring fire, and this faithful TV re-creation feels no different

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 Matthew Shardlake (Arthur Hughes) is withdrawn from his ordinary lawyerly duties and dispatched by Cromwell (Sean Bean, delivering all the goods in the short screen time allocated) to investigate the murder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...

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