The Pillars of the Earth Review
Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Rufus Sewell, Allison Pill, Tony Curran, Eddie Redmayne
Sweeping, historical miniseries and TV movies on cable television have mostly been in the domain of HBO. Starz’ attempt with its eight-episode miniseries adaptation of Ken Follett’s, The Pillars of the Earth is an intense, highly entertaining, if clunky piece of historical drama. The miniseries will naturally draw the ire of fans of Follett’s bestselling novel, but it’s more likely to create new fans who might not be familiar with Follett’s work. Produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, The Pillars of the Earth takes place during England’s 19-year Anarchy period of civil war and upheaval during the 12th century.
The political atmosphere is difficult to follow without historical understanding of the era especially since the Anarchy isn’t a regular historical period in pop culture. Set mainly in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, The Pillars of the Earth interconnects the lives of fictional, ordinary people with those of historical figures. The series immediately starts in 1120 with the royals. King Henry I of England’s (Clive Wood’s) only legitimate son and 17-year old male heir, William Adelin, is lost at sea after the White Ship sinks off the coast of Normandy. His death sends England into chaos. With the line of royal succession in doubt, Henry names his daughter Matilda, also known as Maud (Alison Phil) as his heir. Henry’s barons, including his favourite nephew Stephen (Tony Curran), swear allegiance to the crown princess. But Maud has enemies who would rather see an illegitimate male heir than a woman take the throne.
Amidst all this political upheaval, ordinary stonemason, Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) suddenly loses his job after his enraged employer Lord William Hamleigh (David Oakes) dismisses him. Desperate, Tom takes his family across the forest to find work and lodging to keep them alive. On their journey they befriended healer and accused witch Ellen (Natalia Worner) and her silent, brilliant, red-haired son Jackson (Eddie Redmayne). After their perilous journey the Builder family and new friends settle in Kingsbridge where Prior Philip (Matthew Macfayden), needs help to build the town’s cathedral. Meanwhile, King Henry I has died and Stephen, despite his oath of allegiance to Maud, seizes the throne for himself.
The miniseries’ strength is ultimately the project’s downfall. There are no breakouts in the ensemble cast of The Pillars of the Earth. Each performance is as wonderfully overacted as the last, which creates a well-oiled machine of perfect casting, though some of the characters are boiled down to over-the-top archetypes. Veterans like Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland, and Rufus Sewell are matched by rising actors like Matthew Macfayden, Eddie Redmayne, and Hayley Atwell. Each actor attempts to draw uniqueness from the characters that reside in an era of faceless hordes and homogenous fealty. Macfayden’s Prior Philip is a trusting, devout monk in corrupt church, Tony Curran’s King Stephen is a murdering coward, while Rufus Sewell’s Tom is a much sensitive family man as he is ferocious fighter. As for Eddie Redmayne’s quiet Jack – there’s more said in Redmayne’s soulful doe eyes than in his dialogue. And that’s just the men.
In historical pieces where women are a little more than property, onscreen female characters surprisingly often, have more strength and individuality than their modern counterparts. Kate Dickie’s Agnes Builder gives birth in the middle of the forest. Hayley Atwell’s Aliena is a sword-swinging maiden. Natalia Worner’s sexy Ellen might very well be a witch. As for Alison Pill’s Maud – somewhere between her icy promise to fight for her son’s life and readying herself for battle in knight’s armour, you understand why men line up to go to the ends of the earth for her.
But this acting machine bogs down the action. There are too many characters to keep up with and considering the project spans lifetimes, the storylines are too difficult to remember. There are too many heroes and villains – each with their own agendas and alliances. There are doublecrossings, and alliances are reforged or unmade in a span of minutes. Everyone owes someone else something for some reason. Even the characters themselves have trouble remembering whose side they’re on. It’s as confusing as the Anarchy itself.
The Pillars of the Earth does attempt some semblance of historical accuracy even though it treats King Stephen as definitely evil. He engages in murders that history hasn’t proven. The sense of the era, though, is accurate. The show’s creators pay attention to detail. The miniseries presents the grimy, bloody, and dangerous chaos of the Middle Ages. England is going through a period of urbanization and men like Tom head to the market towns in droves. The architecture is transforming into Gothic style. Tom wants to improve stone cathedrals using arches, a modern marvel that stuns Prior Philip into awed silence. It’s a political age – the church throws its support behind the usurper Stephen, not out of loyalty, but because Stephen will be the church’s puppet prince.
The violence of The Pillars of the Earth isn’t for the squeamish – swords do most of the grisly damage, while the bows and arrows do the rest. And since the knights can’t fight the women in the open, they rape them behind locked doors.
The Pillars of the Earth, despite cat-and-mouse politics, double dealings, and alliances, never explicitly says that it’s relevant to a modern audience. It doesn’t have to. The creators respect the audience enough. Instead of taking you by the hand, or hammering you over the head, they invite you to follow, and to look, and to listen. Lessons on war, elitism, religion, gender, and class are the ones you make. Its gentle persuasion is enough to follow it to its conclusion.