Before Ken Follett wrote epic, thousand-page bestsellers like Pillars of the Earth, he wrote sleek, taut thrillers like The Big Needles, and sci-fi classics like Capricorn One. I mention this because, however well done Pillars of the Earth might be [I’ve not read it], the television miniseries [Starz, Friday, 10/9C] is an overstuffed, frequently ponderous work that is most notable for its amazing cast – Ian McShane [Lovejoy, Deadwood], Donald Sutherland [Dirty Sexy Money, Salem’s Lot], Rufus Sewell [Dark City, The Illusionist], Gordon Pinsent [Away From Her], Tony Curran [Underworld: Evolution, Doctor Who] and Allison Pill [The Book of Daniel, In Treatment] among them.
Set in a time of civil war following the death of King Henry [Clive Wood], Pillars of the Earth follows events that swirl around the building of a massive cathedral in the fictitious town of Kingsbridge. In the civil war, there are those who follow the king’s daughter, Maud [Pill] and those who follow his nephew, Stephen [Curran].
There are two central religious figures, as well: the ambitious and duplicitous Waleran Bigod [McShane] and the genuine believer, Philip [Matthew Macfayden] – the former scheming his way, he hopes, to becoming pope; the latter hoping to serve God, protect his people and build a cathedral that will keep his town from falling further into poverty.
Sewell is Tom Builder, a mason who conceives the initial plan for the cathedral – a man who is trying to provide for his daughter Martha [Skye Bennett] and stepson, Jack [Eddie Redmayne]. He takes on the task of building the cathedral in return for food and shelter for his family [financial remuneration to be given when Prior Philip can afford it, thus inventing the credit system].
Sutherland is Bartholomew, Earl of Shiring, and loyal to Maud. His daughter Aliena [Hayley Atwell] will play a much larger role in the story than her father – though it is his fate that spurs her on.
Regan Hamleigh [Sarah Parish] is a twisted soul [you can tell from her disfigured face] who wishes her son, Percy [Robert Bathurst] to become the next Earl of Shiring – and in the meantime, she has a fixation on him that is less than healthy.
Pillars of the Earth is so complex that, in order to tell its tale, it frequently comes off as rushed and filled with odd coincidences. John Pielmeier [who also acts in the miniseries] has clearly done as much as he can to distil Follett’s thousand-page epic into eight hours [about five hundred pages of script] of television. Frankly, though, even with all the elements that make for an entertaining historical epic [incest, matricide, a birth in a collapsing church, a bandit adopting an abandoned infant and turning over a new leaf, bloody action and sex [healthy and otherwise], the end result is more than a little florid.
Fortunately, the incredible cast digs in with a will and their performances rise well above the script’s failings. Give director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan credit, he knows when to turn his cast loos and when to pull in the reins. The end result is more of a guilty pleasure than a genuinely good epic, but it does fill the bill when it comes to goofy summer fun.
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