Television review: ‘The Pillars of the Earth’
Starz, which has found success with its historical sword-and-sauciness series “Spartacus,” updates the mix a millennium or so and raises the tone a bit with “The Pillars of the Earth,” an eight-hour adaptation of Ken Follett’s 1989 thousand-page novel of medieval England. Set mostly in and around the fictional town of Kingsbridge, which should not be confused with the actual British town of Kingsbridge, during a violent period of English history known as the Anarchy, which should not be confused with that song by the Sex Pistols, it is a tale of holy aspiration and earthly skullduggery, as various characters build monuments to God, fight for titles, feather their nests, fall in love, have sex in a cave, or invent the credit system and the flying buttress. Something, in other words, for everyone.
Follett’s book, a kind of learned potboiler, is very long, and like the cathedrals he writes about — the building of one is central to his story — it gains gravity with size. The characters have a lot of time to tell you who they are, and the author gets to work in all the many things he knows about the nuts and bolts of medieval architecture and the legal, religious and social customs of the time. (Some of the series’ most enjoyable moments are its most incidentally educational.) It is big enough to make all the crazy things that happen within it seem sort of reasonable.
Directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (“Heroes,” “Battlestar Galactica”), the film is long too, though one might almost say not long enough: Overflowing with coincidence and cliffhangers, with reversals of fortune and shifts of allegiance — “And then what side are we on?” asks one character, and it’s a fair question — it feels overstuffed, busy to the point of daffiness. God, art, engineering, civil war, incestuous desire, domestic violence, quasi-sibling rivalry, matricide, 12th century proto-feminism, even an interpolated defense of same-sex love, it seems like everything is here but the kitchen sink — and, look, isn’t that the kitchen sink?
Screenwriter and cast member John Pielmeier (author of “Agnes of God,” but the odd Lifetime film as well) has amended Follett’s often lurid but finally fairly thoughtful novel to make it more like, well, a cable TV miniseries. He has beefed up the melodrama and altered some of the book’s several conclusions — there are lots of characters to take care of — to render them more conventionally “exciting” and “satisfying.” For his big finish he cribs from “Oliver Twist,” with a bit of “Perry Mason” worked in for good measure.
Things get pretty wacky by the end — actually, they get wacky well before the end — but however unlikely, the proceedings are kept watchable by a cast that notably includes Ian McShane, straying not too far from the power-loving charmers he played on “Deadwood” and “Kings” as an ambitious, murderous, self-flagellating cleric; white-maned Donald Sutherland as a self-sacrificing noble lord; Rufus Sewell as a vigorous, visionary stonemason (“What if I were to tell you that one day this is what cathedrals would be built from?” he asks rhetorically, brandishing a bit of glass); and 2010 Tony winner Eddie Redmayne (“Red”) as his even more visionary if somewhat less vigorous stepson student.
But regular viewers of British import television may also recognize Matthew Macfadyen (“MI-5") as the godly, goodly Prior Philip, Tony Curran (lately seen as Vincent Van Gogh in “Doctor Who”) as demented King Stephen, Sarah Parish ( “Merlin”) as an evil mother a little too in love with an evil son, and Hayley Atwell (“Mansfield Park”) as a noblewoman turned businesswoman. They do chew the scenery a little, but it is substantial scenery — Hungarian scenery, in fact — and stands up well.
A German-Canadian co-production made in association with Ridley and Tony Scott, “The Pillars of the Earth” is at least this good: It makes you anxious for the safety of its serially imperiled heroes, some of whom will not make it to the end, and compels you to stick around if only to see the villains at long last get their comeuppances. Spoiler alert: They get them.