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1 May 2024

Disney’s Shardlake series is tediously anachronistic

Organic produce, everyday sexism, and cartoonish monks: I can’t take anything in this mist-shrouded adaptation seriously.

By Rachel Cooke

England, 1536, and in London, Matthew Shardlake (Arthur Hughes), a crook-backed barrister of Lincoln’s Inn, is eating his lunch when he is interrupted by Joan (Kimberley Nixon), his housekeeper. “Sir, there is a distracting codpiece at the door,” she tells him – a memorable phrase that, if pushed, I may have to use in the future to refer to the more annoying males of the species.

Shardlake tells her to bring in the man, an employee of Thomas Cromwell’s (Sean Bean) called Jack Barak (Anthony Boyle), and now he appears: a right old clever clogs who is determined they set out immediately for the Benedictine monastery where Shardlake is to investigate the murder of one of Cromwell’s men. Shardlake, though, won’t be hurried. “I’m not packed,” he tells Barak, as if his Rimowa-on-wheels is even now on his bed waiting to receive his shaving foam and swimming trunks.

I love CJ Sansom’s brilliant and clever Shardlake novels – Sansom, very sadly, died in April, at the age of 71 – and always slightly dreaded the prospect of their adaptation for television. Tudor television can be excellent: in my mind’s eye I can still picture Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn at the shivering moment of her execution in the BBC’s Wolf Hall. But mostly, it is not. You watch it, and you feel that you are in some amateurish reconstruction, all wenches and tapestries and stinky herrings. Add a few monks, as in this four-part series, and the potential for embarrassment is enormous. Forget Henry VIII’s fancy new faith, of which Shardlake is an adherent (the books are pleasingly attentive to matters of doctrine). Here is a collection of ready-made cartoon baddies, their black habits alone far more sinister than anything corrupt old Rome has to offer, even transubstantiation.

Hughes, who has radial dysplasia and was the first disabled actor to play Richard III at the RSC, is excellent as Shardlake: an alchemical experiment in intensity and laconicism. “I’m noted for my gait,” he says to himself with huge feeling, summoning courage. “It is I, my disguise.” But I can’t take anything else about this mist-shrouded series seriously at all. The script, by Stephen Butchard (The Last Kingdom), is so tediously anachronistic. A gallery at the monastery is “closed for repair”, as if it were a National Trust property and Shardlake a disappointed member (and no tea room or coffee-and-walnut cake either!). A woman whose job it is to serve the monks talks about the sexual harassment she endures – “Like all women, I must deal with it” – as if she’s just read not her prayer book but Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism. If these brothers, determined to resist Cromwell’s plan to destroy them, are murderous (someone has already severed the head of his emissary, the man whose death Shardlake is investigating), they also boast of their home-grown produce in a manner they’ve quite possibly learned from Carole Bamford of Daylesford fame. Given that Barak tends to have an eye for the main chance, I fully expect him to be marketing their organic mead by the end of the series.

There seems to be a great deal of CGI, and it looks fantastical and blurry and a lot less impressive all round than, say, Durham Cathedral. I accept that Netflix’s seductive Ripley has spoiled me for locations, at least for a while. All that marble and limestone; all that chiaroscuro. But Shardlake appears to come with no real castles, or even cobbles. This is not Merrye Englande. It is the Grand Anywhere we’ve come to know all too well in the age of streaming, and it bores me to death, my eyes unable to stick to it (and so my mind wanders, and my hand reaches for my phone).

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I’m struck that even Sean Bean, lately in his thrilling prime as an actor, seems unable fully to impart any energy in the scenes in which he appears. His menace is pantomimed, a by-product of his velvet robes –though I will admit that I enjoyed it when he showed Shardlake not one, but two, skulls of St Barbara (Cromwell had them on his desk, in the manner of executive toys). Barbara had resisted a man, and so she was martyred – another, quite different approach to sexual harassment. Shardlake considered these relics carefully for a moment, before reaching his conclusion. “A two-headed saint,” he told Cromwell. “No wonder she was a virgin.”


[See also: Red Eye review: a bargain-basement Snakes on a Plane]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March