Is Sean Bean’s murder mystery worth a watch?

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When you learn Sean Bean is playing Thomas Cromwell in the new Tudor murder mystery Shardlake, two questions spring to mind. Anyone versed in the period knows it didn’t pan out well for Cromwell, so one is whether this is yet another instance of Bean being killed off on-screen. Another is how this will compare to Mark Rylance’s career-defining turn as the Tudor bruiser in Wolf Hall?

If Wolf Hall es the Godfather-like depiction of the upper echelons of the Tudor court, then Shardlake es la Goodfellas entry, focusing on the lower rung “emissaries” of Henry VIII instead of the man himself.

Based on the first of CJ Sansom’s historical mystery novels, Shardlake Sees the lawyer Matthew Shardlake (Arthur Hughes) sent by Cromwell to dig into the death of one of his envoys to a remote Sussex monastery. On finding the guilty party, Cromwell tells his Sherlock prototype he must shut down the Benedictine monastery.

Disney+

Shardlake is accompanied by Jack Barak, played by Masters of the Air‘s Anthony Boyle on his two-day ride to the monastery. They’re shiftily welcomed by a covenant of mean-spirited monks, clad in heavy black habits, who stand up and down the gloomy stone corridors and value their own survival above all else.

The farm-to-table monastery, which imports its free-flowing wine from France and is at ease taking donations from impoverished locals, is vast, forbidding and beautifully shot. It doesn’t look like a place anyone would want to enter, let alone stay.

Each monk or abbot is more suspicious than the last, multiplying potential suspects for Shardlake. His workload exponentially increases as more victims fall by the wayside over the four episodes. Amidst the rocketing body count, Shardlake must also navigate suspicions over Barak’s motives, the shadowy politics of Anne Boleyn’s recent execution of ella and discrimination over his kyphosis of ella.

Martin Mlaka//Disney+

There’s plenty of good stuff in Shardlake. Disney+ did not scrimp on the period costume, wood-panelled sets lit with copious candlelight and overall reconstruction of the miserable medieval vibe. The general gloom that hangs over the murder mystery hammers home its chief theme that you can’t trust anyone here.

Unless you’ve devoured Sansom’s books or Hilary Mantel’s doorstoppers or otherwise have a firm GCSE-level grasp on the Tudors, the barrier to entry is tough to scale, because the show doesn’t do a lot to help you up.

Take, for example, when one monk incurs the wrath of his brethren and is forced to stand in the corner with a red “M” emblazoned on a scruffy cap, dunce-style. The fact this ‘M’ stands for “maleficium” – Latin for “wrongdoing” – isn’t explained until the following episode. It could just as easily have been for “majestic” or even just “monk”.

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We’re given the broadest of contextual brushstrokes on the dissolution of the monasteries and a little bit about why we should care a fig about the murder, but there’s no spoon feeding. Much like the Tudor world we’re inhabiting, it’s each man for themselves.

Speaking of men, it’s probably not a huge surprise given the monastery setting, but Shardlake It definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. When a woman does eventually show up, it’s first Shardlake’s “well built” housekeeper and then later Andy Serkis’ daughter Ruby Ashbourne Serkis with not a lot to do.

shardlake
Disney+

Shardlake is too slow off the mark. It isn’t until the second episode that we rev into some action, and when there are only four in total, it’s a hefty chunk of table-setting.

Anyone tuning in for Bean will find he doesn’t factor much. That should be fine, because Hughes as gruff Shardlake and Boyle as grinning cheeky chappie Barak are a compelling oil-and-water duo by themselves.

But there just isn’t enough of their Sherlock and Watson back-and-forth. Instead, we’re often stuck alone with Shardlake and his thoughts he told via soliloquy. After a few scenes of that, you start to understand why Barak might not want to spend so much time with him.

3 stars
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Shardlake is available to stream on Disney+.

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Headshot of Rebecca Cook

Deputy Editor

Previously a TV Reporter at The MirrorRebecca can now be found crafting expert analysis of the TV landscape for Digital Spywhen she’s not talking on the BBC or Times Radio about everything from the latest season of Bridgerton or The White Lotus to whatever chaos is unfolding in the various Love Island villas.

When she’s not bingeing a box set, Rebecca’s in-the-wild sightings have included stints on the National TV Awards and BAFTAs red carpets, and post-match video explainers of the TV we’re all watching.

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