For a fairly vast legion of readers, Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth” is a literary favorite. While I’ve read three or four Follett novels, I’ve missed/skipped/been-intimidated-by-the-sheer-size-of “Pillars of the Earth,” so this isn’t one of those reviews that’s going to tell you how well your favorite characters/scenes/buttresses are depicted on the small screen. I can’t tell you what’s been changed, what plot points were taken directly from the book or what arcs make more sense spread out over 1000 pages rather than rushed over an eight-hour miniseries, premiering on Starz on Friday, July 23.
What I can tell you is that I nearly ejected my DVD for “Pillars of the Earth” after 10 minutes. It’s an epic endeavor and if I’ve started to yell “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” lines at the screen — “I thought we were an autonomous collective!” — after only two or three scenes there’s no way I’m making it through eight hours. And, in the early going, “Pillars of the Earth” doesn’t put its best foot forward.
Seemingly embracing the grit-and-grime of its 1120 AD beginning, the miniseries offers only so-so production values and the inevitable spectacle of Fine British Actors (and the occasional American or Canadian actor doing an accent) in scruffy facial hair and caked in stage-dirt initially plays all-too-close to parody.
I persisted for three reasons: The first being that Sepinwall already made it clear he wasn’t going to have the time or desire to watch. The second being that I’m a professional, darnit. And the third being that other professionals I respect had raved about the miniseries.
I’m mostly glad I did. “Pillars of the Earth” may start off shoddy and silly, but it picks up steam and after three or four hours, I was well and truly immersed in the world created by producers Tony and Ridley Scott, writer John Pielmeier and director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan. Then, of course, fatigue set in and by the last two hours, I was pretty much only watching because I had invested too much time not to see how the darned cathedral turned out. Since Starz is airing “Pillars” in one-hour weekly installments (after a two-hour premiere), it’s possible that by parsing out the narrative over two months, that fatigue might be avoided.
Additional review-type thoughts on “Pillars of the Earth” after the break…
The first thing that has to be said about “Pillars of the Earth” is that airing on Starz, it comes across looking rather quaint.
The first two hours include rape, mutilation, incest, witchcraft, usurpation, public urination, flying blood and murder-most-foul. Yet it still seems quaint.
“Pillars of the Earth” wasn’t produced in-house by Starz. It was an acquisition. But it still unavoidably will stand in comparison to Starz’ dramatic hit “Spartacus.” So when characters go into battle and an artery is opened, you might wonder why droplets of blood fill the air, rather than buckets. When characters have sex, you might wonder why you’re only getting partial nudity and kissing, rather than thrusting, merkins and nipples galore. Characters in “Pillars of the Earth” swear, but unlike in “Spartacus,” they’re aware of other ways of expressing themselves. And although “Pillars of the Earth” relies heavily on special effects and green screen, every once in a while you see what appears to be a real tree or actual grass. Like I said, “Pillars of the Earth” is quaint.
“Pillars of the Earth” isn’t for the kiddies, but it’s still very much a throwback to the days when networks would mount ambitious multi-night events around star-studded literary adaptations and nobody worried about the lack of back-end revenue or syndication, because those darned things would draw tens of millions of live TV viewers, back when that sort of thing mattered. Now, when networks do miniseries, they’re all either produced by Robert Halmi or featured D-list stars coping with the immediate aftermath of an earthquake or a meteor landing.
With a narrative that spans decades, “Pillars of the Earth” is about… Well, I’d have a hard time encapsulating what it’s about. It’s about the War of Succession. It’s about the construction of a cathedral. It’s about architecture and religion and life in that uncomfortable, unwashed epoch before refrigeration and proper medical care. It’s the story of a corrupt establishment and the few individuals devoted to true callings, devoted to issues of faith or artistry.
“Pillars of the Earth” is about those things, but one shouldn’t go into the miniseries hoping for educational value. Because as a reader might learn quasi-historical and cultural information from Follett’s novel, that’s the sort of nuance that a weighty tome can possess, but that even an eight-hour miniseries can’t really approach. This version of “Pillars of the Earth” is a retro bodice-ripper with occasional philosophical underpinnings. For every discussion of Euclidean geometry’s importance in the proper construction of a vaulted ceiling, there are 50 scenes of our nefarious villains (David Oakes’ William and, most particularly, Ian McShane’s Waleran) standing in an ill-lit corner twirling their figurative mustaches and plotting the demise of our heroes (Rupert Sewell’s Tom, Matthew MacFadyen’s Philip, Hayley Atwell’s Aliena and, in particular, Eddie Redmayne’s Jack). And “Pillars of the Earth” is a mighty long miniseries to progress as far as it does without any meaningful character reversals. The good and bad characters are very black-and-white, albeit each suffering from equal quantities of guilt, and the only shades of gray are the result of insufficient use of bleaching agents.
The whiplash rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall of each of hour heroes leads to the fatigue I mentioned earlier. Narratively, the movie is a teeter-totter more than a smooth arc and it’s hard to be pleased on the behalf of a hero who seems to catch a lucky break in the first five minutes of an hour if you know that The Church or The Crown or The Laws of Gravity are going to mess up that happiness. Yes, our heroes may periodically get elected prior or carve a gargoyle or imprison The Usurper or have illicit sex, but Forces Greater Than They Are inevitably impose. And yes, I’m familiar with The Hero’s Journey and all of that Joseph Campbell stuff, but rarely has said journey been delivered with such formulaic monotony. This is where I note that the miniseries will definitely play better over two months than over a short weekend.
In addition to the sometimes clumsy narrative storytelling, “Pillars of the Earth” is bland to the eye as well. The opulence of Showtime’s “The Tudors” (set in a more opulent time, clearly) may have spoiled me to the visual possibilities of this sort of period piece, but I can’t find anything notable to praise in the cinematography or costuming and hair/makeup in this miniseries. Too many of the compositions are flat and stagey and the only source of variation are a slew of carbon copy Glory of God overhead shots. The battle scenes are poorly choreographed and offer neither scale nor intimacy to skirmishes between two sides who frequently become interchangeable on the field.
I really can’t speak to the visual effects. Starz was anxious to get the full miniseries to critics, but that meant that there were a lot of green screens remaining since — spoiler — the production didn’t actually construct a real cathedral. There was some evocative imagery even in the partial effects — a major inferno in the opening hours, for example — that would give me hope.
What “Pillars of the Earth” has in spades are justifiably archetypal characters played by top-notch actors.
Redmayne, a recent Tony winner, has already been in more than a few period pieces and BBC miniseries and he seems to have a long career ahead of him in this milieu. That is to say that he feels instantly natural conveying this world of earnestness and repressed desires. He stumbles as the miniseries progresses only because he’s able to go through part of his character’s aging process plausibly and then he just stops aging.
Atwell, a personal favorite from Woody Allen’s otherwise muddled “Cassandra’s Dream” and AMC’s “The Prisoner,” is every bit the fiery semi-proto-feminist of her period, though like Redmayne, she hits her aging ceiling at the half-way point.
Macfadyen offers suitable righteous gravitas, though his character is proof that “faith” isn’t necessarily a attribute that plays out dynamically over eight hours. He’s mostly supposed to look pained, while McShane gets the dramatic highs and lows, the evil and the self-flaggelation. As tremendous an actor as McShane undisputedly is, he gives what could be described as a Greatest Hits-style rendition of recent pieces of small screen villainy and I found myself yearning for the writing that gave his “Deadwood” and “Kings” characters their bite.
Failure to mention the fine work by Sewell, Donald Sutherland and Alison Pill would be a mistake.
Viewers will come into “Pillars of the Earth” with a lot of baggage, either from similar projects within the genre or from the Follett novel. The greatest baggage, though, just comes from the inevitable desire to compare “Pillars of the Earth” to shinier, newer versions of the Period Piece. If you can put aside the desire for another “Spartacus” or “The Tudors,” “Pillars of the Earth” weaves an engaging enough yarn for much of its eight hours.
[And now, kids, I’m off to Comic-Con… “Pillars of the Earth” will not have a presence.]
“Pillars of the Earth” premieres on Starz on Friday, July 23, 2010.