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Great Performances Elevate Hulu’s Murder Mystery

Great Performances Elevate Hulu's Murder Mystery

There’s great fun to be had watching Arthur Hughes and Anthony Boyle play unlikely crime-solving partners in Shardlake, Hulu’s slick 16th-century Tudor murder mystery miniseries. The set-up recalls other seemingly mismatched pairings that begin questionably yet ultimately must develop trust to work together – from The Wire’s McNulty and Bunk (Dominic West and Wendell Pierce) to Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) on The X-Files.

Hughes and Boyle ignite the screen in this adaptation of C.J. Sansom’s best-selling murder mystery novels. They are, in fact, the best thing about the four-part historical drama, which whips about at a breezy pace, inserting proper musical crescendos and quick cuts to keep the action, drama, and suspense moving. And while it’s not a bad thing that the main stars outshine the actual execution of the plot here, the overall experience is often entertaining. It’s just that you tend to want to spend more time with the characters and their backstories. In time, perhaps.

The tale revolves around Matthew Shardlake (Hughes), an ambitious barrister living with scoliosis in 16th-century England. Thomas Cromwell (Sean Bean), part of Henry VIII’s inner circle, oversees the dissolution of the monasteries when a beheading at one of them gives him a viable reason to close the shop. The murder must be investigated first, of course, which gives Shardlake a mystery to solve and an unlikely partner that must accompany him, John Barak, played with cocksure swagger by Boyle. Fans of offbeat buddy movies, murder mysteries, and historical dramas will appreciate this swift yet compact misadventure. It may leave you wanting even more. That’s good. There were seven Shardlake books in all.

Shardlake Moves at Breakneck Speed

Shardlake TV show poster featuring Sean Bean

Shardlake (2024)


Release Date
May 1, 2024

Arthur Hughes , Sean Bean , Anthony Boyle , Babou Ceesay , Paul Kaye , Ruby Ashbourne Serkis , Peter Firth , Matthew Steer , Brian Vernel , Irfan Shamji , David Pearse , Miles Barrow , Mike Noble , Kimberley Nixon


Streaming Service(s)


  • The writing in Shardlake is exceptional and will keep viewers engaged.
  • Both Arthur Hughes and Anthony Boyle are excellent in their starring roles.
  • The editing and production design, in particular, are highlights of Shardlake.

  • Audiences may ultimately wish they got to spend more time with the characters in this first outing,
  • The core mystery is far less appealing than the stars leading the series.

Executive producer Stevie Lee (The Reason I Jump) nabbed the rights to Shardlake some 20 years ago. Time may have been on her side. The outing comes at a time when part of the culture is loving historical dramas. Hulu’s Shōgun recently won raves. Masters of the Air, Manhunt (both of which starred Boyle), Franklin, and Mary & George found their footing with viewers. Shardlake is a nice addition to that mix, with writer Stephen Butchard (The Good Mothers) doing his finest, keeping everything taut.

Cromwell wants Barak to accompany Shardlake, which sets up yet another layer of intrigue. Can the man be trusted? Shardlake isn’t so sure. It’s here the plot, with its zippy (sometimes overblown) dialogue, forces you to pay attention, but boy, there are no two finer actors to go at it with each other and possibly come to some resolution. Boyle, great as he is, looks a bit too polished and clean-shaven here compared to other 16th-century fellas. It’s not his fault, of course, but it’s noticeable.


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Regardless, the writing is exceptional, and Hughes, particularly, finds himself in the kind of role of a lifetime with his commanding presence and sharp veracity. The actor, who was born with radial dysplasia in real life, also brings a level of authenticity to the character of Shardlake, who has been ridiculed for his hunchback appearance. There are psychological challenges, too, upon which the series touches, such as self-doubt, making Shardlake one of the more intriguing characters to hit the screen in early 2024.

Shardlake Captures the Time Period

Throughout the Hulu miniseries, Shardlake uses his intellect to prove himself, while Barak shows off his alpha makeup. And yet, if you’ve watched Boyle in Masters of the Air and Manhunt, you’ll question why he seems more reserved here. The script calls for him to be a potential yet well-meaning thorn for Shardlake, and there’s a bit of cleverness as to how Butchard pulls off getting these two on the same square. Curiously, Barak was not featured in the very first Shardlake novel, Dissolution, on which this outing is centered. He came along in the next book. Having him here gives the series some extra pep.


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Meanwhile, the murder mystery plays out. Cromwell had sent a commissioner to the monastery, and the mystery surrounding his beheading must be solved. The series does a fine job at showcasing ominous hidden portals within the monastery – dark, mysterious chambers, torches, candles, and such – giving you the feeling as if you are being whisked along a suspenseful misadventure that always seems to end on a cliffhanger. There’s a touch of “Disney-esque” splash here and there. Ultimately forgivable, but any more of it would make you believe we’re watching a cousin to Pirates of the Caribbean.

The time period itself also gets its due, with Butchard inserting as many historical notations as necessary. The writer enjoys Shardlake’s rants as he expounds upon various murder suspects. About that… the monastery monks themselves all seem to be untrustworthy, with more than a hint that something is hidden under the service. Like Immaculate, the recent Sydney Sweeney film that also took place in a monastery, there are no neutral characters, per se. Sometimes, the “everybody is a suspect” trope works. Here, not so much, making the core mystery less appealing than the stars actually leading the tale.

Still, this brisk and engaging story, with its creepy overtones, showcases the world outside the king’s court, and everything from the production design to the editing offers the main stars a great platform on which to shine. Is the final stretch worth it? A big yes, mostly thanks to Hughes and Boyle. Shardlake is now streaming on Hulu. Watch the trailer below.

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