Judge Bill Gibron was wary of the title, and after experiencing the mini-series, his fears were well-founded.
Our review of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Sci-Fi Adventures, published February 2nd, 2010, is also available.
We liked it better when it was called Game of Thrones…
As TV was tripping through the Me Decade, looking for ways to combat the brilliant inroads postmodern moviemaking was gaining in the cultural conversation, someone stumbled upon the concept of the mini-series. Unlike an hour-long drama, which offered self-contained stories over a (hopefully extended) seasonal run, these expansive pseudo-epics would encompass whole narratives, running for days—or even weeks—before settling on their foregone conclusions. Titles like Rich Man, Poor Man, Roots, and The Thorn Birds drove the medium into a frenzy, unleashing a torrent of titles that would soon turn a viable format into a laughing stock. By the time Centennial unspooled for a record 26 episodes, few were fawning. Luckily, cable came along and gave the idea a shot in the unrated arm. Suddenly, the suggested sex and violence inherent in the material chosen could be explored and exploited.
Recently, Starz had a huge success with Ken Follett's 1989 opus The Pillars of the Earth. Set in the middle of the 12th century, between the time of the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Thomas Beckett (known as The Anarchy), the book was a monster hit, endorsed by none other than literary diva Oprah Winfrey herself. A follow-up, entitled World Without End, arrived some 18 years later and was another page-turning blockbuster. Unfortunately, the previous pay TV home wanted nothing more to do with another period piece production, so unknown quantity Reelz Channel stepped up and offered to broadcast the results. Many in the fanbase were not happy. They found the adaptation cheap and perceived it to be undermining much of the book's many meaningful contexts. Truth be told, some stories don't require eons to tell. In this case, a better title would be Story Without End…or that Won't End.
Facts of the Case
World Without End takes place 157 years after the events in Pillars of the Earth. It uses The Hundred Years War and the coming Black Death as narrative bookends to tell the tale of two lovers, Caris (Charlotte Riley, Wuthering Heights) and Merthin (Tom Weston-Jones, Spooks). She wants to pursue an education in the medical sciences and discovers a kindred spirit in Mattie (Indira Varma, Rome). Naturally, this leads the Dark Age citizenry to start suspecting something more menacing…like witchcraft. He, along with his brother Ralph (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Raven) are vying for the chance to be a nobleman's squire. When Methin loses the duel, he ends up a builder's apprentice.
As our couple grows close, the threat of a trial sends Caris to a convent. There, she continues her healing ways and works with Mother Cecelia (Miranda Richardson, The Crying Game) to undermine the despotic efforts of the ruling Prior Godwyn (Rupert Evans, Hellboy). Helped by his mother, Petranilla (Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City), he is part of the ongoing persecution of the tiny town of Kingsbridge. Also adding to the issue is Queen Isabella (Aure Akita, Sticky Fingers) who has defeated her husband King Edward II and placed her son Edward III (Blake Ritson, Rocknrolla) on the throne. The war, the oncoming plague, excessive taxation, and a secret surrounding the power struggle make this locale, and its people, prime for continuing persecution.
It's hard to get a handle on what World Without End is supposed to be. It does dabble in history, but doesn't completely follow the known facts. Fictionally, it's no better than a basic soap opera, our characters acting out of passion and purpose only to have others outside and incidents conspire to keep them apart. Messageboards have been equally harsh with the mini-series' treatment of the source. While Follett is no Pynchon, there are those who love his prose. Sadly, this take on World Without End restructures and reconfigures the storylines to make them almost unrecognizable from the book. It also cheapens the players and makes their actions seem more senseless than Pillars previous. Granted, this takes place a century and a half after the first narrative, but would their ancestors appreciate World's wimpy cravenness? One thinks not.
World Without End also suffers from something we critics call "straight teeth syndrome." Remember, this is all taking place during the 1300s, when dentistry was more backward than doctoral leeches and bloodletting. Everything here looks too pristine, too clean and compact to be part of a real bygone era. Sure, you can say this is nothing more than a melodramatic fairy tale, but even the plague stuff seems…well, a bit too tidy. We want dirt and dank. We want gangrenous limbs and flowing pus (well, some of us want that). Monty Python figured it out. What we don't want is clipped British accents waltzing around obvious indiscretions, let alone the numerous sexual battery crimes against 13th century humanity. There is a lot of rape here, which was apparently the 14th century's version of a caveman taking his prospective damsel by the hair and back to his cave. "No" is never part of the vocabulary here. It's clearly a cultural thing, and the storyline suffers because of it.
Still, there are things to like about World Without End. It is a potboiler that never lets things get too dull before diving, head on, into something equally sudsy. The performances are uniformly decent, with no one ruining the concept with their out-of-place histrionics (or significant lack thereof). The subject matter reeks of current edifying memes. There is sex, violence, intrigue, backstabbing, and the usual (forced) bedhopping. Still, one imagines Follet fans feeling gypped by all this nonsense. As stated before, they are still frothing at the liberties taken and the elements left out. To put it in terms we might all understand, it's like Stephen King geeks going ga-ga over Stanley Kurbrick's The Shining, or a take on The Stand with half the characters cut out. World Without End may not match its franchise foundation in the pomp and aesthetic circumstance department, but the end result is approachable. What you experience upon entrance will depend entirely on your tolerance for ancient intrigue coupled with cornporn plotting.
For the Blu-ray package, Sony has done a sensational job. The AVC-encoded 1080p, 1.85:1 image is striking. It's colorful, loaded with details, and atmospheric. As a matter of fact, there are moments of depth and distance that give the production the epic feel the narrative fails to deliver. It's a terrific transfer all around. On the sound side, things are equally impressive. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is highly immersive, loaded with spatial and directional elements, and crystal clear for the all important (if often insipid) dialogue. The musical score is flawless, matching the material with expertise and precision. About the only letdown, disc-wise, is a middling making-of that plays more like an extended EPK. There's lots of cast and crew interviews, but few backstage stories. It's more promotional than production-oriented.
One of the main reasons why the mini-series has faded from broadcast television is clearly connected to the rise of cable. The HBO of 1985 could never imagine producing original series like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. On the other hand, film has also flowered, giving someone like Peter Jackson nearly 11 hours to tell his version of The Lord of the Rings. World Without End will never rival that Oscar winning excursion through Middle Earth, but for what it wants to accomplish, it's passable. Compared to Pillars of the Earth, however, it's like an illegitimate stepchild. Instead of spectacular, it feels slapdash.
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