Appellate Judge James A. Stewart once built a train layout church. It was much less complicated.
"Who will rule once I am gone?"
"How are we going to market the story of the building of a church?" It's a question Ken Follett, author of the novel, The Pillars of the Earth, asks in the making-of feature with The Pillars of the Earth, an eight-part miniseries now on DVD. Pillars isn't a religious drama, of course; it's got enough blood and breasts for pay cable network Starz. God willing, no contemporary church raising is anything like this.
Facts of the Case
It's 1120 A.D. The Pillars of the Earth starts out underwater, then bobs to the surface to take in a royal ship ablaze. An heir's life ends here, and "The Anarchy" commences, as the King calls on his subjects to accept daughter Maud (Alison Pill, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) as ruler until her son comes of age, but the church backs his nephew Stephen (Tony Curran, Ondine). Bartholomew (Donald Sutherland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) pledges his loyalty to Maud and gets thrown in jail, leaving his daughter Aliena (Hayley Atwell, The Prisoner) and son Richard (Sam Claflin, The Lost Future) on their own. Maud's off to France to raise an army to take back the throne.
Meanwhile, Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell, A Knight's Tale), a master builder, and his family encounter a runaway nun who's also a witch. His destiny, helped by some fortuitous arson, is to rebuild a cathedral. Prior Philip (Matthew McFayden, MI-5) makes some political moves to get materials, angering the Bishop (Ian McShane, Lovejoy).
The first thing that you'll notice is that, although there are eight hours to tell the story, The Pillars of the Earth starts off at a rapid clip and keeps up the fast pace. In the making-of featurette, Ian McShane describes the miniseries as "condensing this rather large tome of fourteen-hundred pages." This doesn't leave much room for subtlety in characterization; you'll know the villains the moment they pop up from their evil glances and the intonation in their voices. It doesn't make for nuanced storytelling, but it makes The Pillars of the Earth easy to follow, even with a rather large cast of characters.
McShane as the plotting Bishop tops the list of scumballs as he courts both Maud and usurper King Stephen, coming up with a dirty trick—switching Stephen's son, Maud's hostage, with some other kid—to keep the war between the two contenders alive. McShane's performance is as subtle as it gets. For a look at the other side, check out David Oakes (Trinity) as William, who attacks the Kingsbridge market to protect his business interests. He's clearly relishing the destruction, setting a female wool merchant on fire out of sheer malice. By the end, William's descent into madness goes down into the annals of overacting.
There are a few more-or-less good guys, most notably the headstrong Jack (Eddie Redmayne, The Good Shepherd), son of the witch, who becomes a stone carver and ends up fleeing to France; Tom, the builder who tries to referee between Jack and his own son Alfred; and Prior Philip, who learns to be just deceitful enough to be a good politician as he watches over his flock and his cathedral.
If you're looking for strong female characters, you'll find them here, starting with Maud, who goes from sweet to steely to protect her infant son's interests. There's also Aliena, who takes on the men to make a living as a wool merchant, encourages her brother Richard through his first beheading of an enemy, and flees an abusive husband to live with another. The strongest, though, are Ellen (Natalia Wörner, The Invincibles), a novice nun who becomes a witch after her lover is put to death, and Lady Regan (Sarah Parish, Merlin), William's controlling mother. Ellen's the sort of saucy troublemaker who pisses (literally) on the Bishop when she's put on trial, while Regan will have you thinking of Lady MacBeth. Both actresses grab the audience's attention whenever they're on the screen.
It turns out that there's no actual cathedral. A visual effects progression segment shows that there's only a small piece of the grand cathedral in real space, with the rest created virtually with CGI. It seems there are a lot of CGI effects to expand market and battle scenes and the like. While you're watching everything seems realistic enough, although I did notice a lot of tight scenes.
The bloodletting is generally full of spray, but brief. I noticed that the sexual content was ramped up a notch around the fifth episode. In early episodes, there were a few bedroom scenes, including an actual bodice ripping, but the first glimpse of breast comes in Episode Five and the nudity keeps coming after that.
In the extras, that visual scene progression is the most interesting, although it is interesting to hear how they fitted a long novel into a relatively short eight chapters. There's also a short on the making of the introduction animation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The one thing that does get short shrift, making it hard to follow, is the course of the war over the throne. There was a point in Episode Seven when a battle scene turned up and I had simply forgotten that the war was still raging.
I haven't read Ken Follett's novel, but The Pillars of the Earth has a rushed feel that makes it seem like chunks were glossed over or left out. It's an eight-part display of dramatic excess that's always very watchable. Even if you're not planning to rush out and buy it, keep it in mind the next time you're renting something to powerwatch.
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