Following the success of "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," Starz treated summer viewers to another, historically themed epic, in the form of an eight-part miniseries adaptation of Ken Follett's acclaimed book "The Pillars of the Earth." Unlike "Spartacus," "The Pillars of the Earth" was adapted by a sole writer, John Pielmeier and directed in its entirety by Sergio Mimic-Gezzan, which would give viewers the impression of a miniseries consistent and tone in quality from start to finish. Unfortunately, "The Pillars of the Earth" is merely just a good miniseries that attempts to mix spurts modern day sensationalism (read: nudity and gore) with the grand epic scale of the 70s and 80s TV miniseries.
The largest problem facing "The Pillars of the Earth" is its noble attempt to adapt a novel that spans a few decades in just a hair over seven hours. Set in 12th Century England, the series follows the lives of a large number of characters primarily in the (fictional) town of Kingsbridge. Our characters range from the simple but kind Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) an architect tasked with building a new church, to King Stephen (Tony Curran) the noble at the center of all events. Each of the characters have their own subplots that slowly unfold and one of the fundamental flaws of the series is the breakneck pace at which it jumps from character to character, making it very difficult to get to know the characters well. I found myself having to get a character list from the internet, just to keep track of everyone in the first two episodes; once things get started though, viewers will recognize the double edged sword quality of such a massive tale: the characters are all intertwined in each other's business, directly and indirectly, which makes for a great deal of intrigue, but with that intrigue comes the exhausting pace of the series.
Most frustrating is despite the quick pace of the series jumping from character to character (there are many more than covered here, many of whom play major roles), things don't get exciting in the traditional sense, until the middle of the third episode. With so much buildup and only four and a half episodes to wrap it all up, the emotional connection with the characters is thrown on the shoulders of the actors filling their shoes. On the positive end of the spectrum, performances from the likes of Matthew McFayden as Prior Philip, the monk overseeing the building are incredibly strong, with McFayden making a huge impact, verbally and non-verbally, making his scenes a welcome pleasure. Additionally, Natalia Wörner is electric as Ellen, the love interest of Tom Builder and constant thorn in the side of the church, who brands her (figuratively) as a witch.
With the good comes the bad, and the bad is a two-fold aspect. "The Pillars of the Earth" is a very black-and-white approach to storytelling, with the heroes and villains set up quickly. The performances of these nefarious figures, almost all nobles and clergy, aren't so great, with one exception: Ian McShane as Bishop Waleran. McShane as expected is a natural fit for a plotter and schemer that in many ways is a medieval version of Al Swearengen. He's a constant threat in the background, pulling the strings of nobles and commoners alike, pitting good against evil and even evil against evil. Like McFayden, McShane's scenes are always solid and the highlights of any episode. That said, his character is very one-dimensional; there is never a hint of ambiguity and all McShane needs is his "Deadwood" mustache to twirl.
Just as evil, but less intriguing is David Oakes as the sniveling William Hamleigh; his villainy is introduced in a vulgar rape scene and extended by his constant whining and desire to maim everyone he views beneath him. Oakes is so over-the-top, his character would be nearly cartoon like if it weren't for the horrible atrocities he commits over the course of the series. Like most spineless cowards, his strings are pulled by someone else, in this case his mother, Regan (Sarah Parish) who is carrying on an incestuous relationship with her son and is equally one-dimensional.
Performance inconsistencies aside, "The Pillars of the Earth" does accomplish an amazing feat. At its core, it is a story about the building of a church. Everything else that happens is, like I stated above, only shown because it gets attached directly or indirectly. Viewers may find themselves conflicted as the story does deviate to subplots that are thinly connected to the church and feel frustration once the connection is severed or brought to a logical conclusion. A great example lies in King Stephen's war with Princess Maude (Allison Pill), which is a major storyline early on in the series, before disappearing altogether, only to briefly reappear in the final episodes. I would have liked more from this story, but as a result of the limitation on time, this was impossible. I strongly feel "The Pillars of the Earth" would have been a better fit as an extended miniseries, much in the fashion that the premiere season of "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" felt self-contained enough to be a miniseries. Alas, to paraphrase a great villain, "time was a luxury we don't have."
"The Pillars of the Earth" does hit a homerun capturing the epic production design of other famous miniseries, from the lavish costumes of the nobles and simple costumes of the monks, to the realistic looking, lived in sets. The fictional town of Kingsbridge comes to life as do other medieval locales and the atmosphere created draws viewers back into history, despite the often-simple approach to storytelling. Mimica-Gezzan's direction walks an even line between basic drama and action, never going over-the-top, even when he resorts to some attention-grabbing act of violence or nudity. The production brings back memories of a bygone era, when television could still tell an epic story on a grand scale and not look cheap. Countless hours and many dollars went into seeing that his production at least captured the spirit of the setting and it shows.
"The Pillars of the Earth" may sound worse than it actually is, an attitude I place on digesting the production in a short time frame. It was not an easy series to get into, due to the very slow opening, but fortunately, once the viewer can settle into the tone and pacing, the finale should be a satisfying experience. Just be prepared for cut-and-dry exposition, and a tendency to throw a shocking revelation or development out just when things begin to drag or go on a bit longer than expected. It's not a bad miniseries by any stretch of the imagination, but far from a great one.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is passable, but plagued by a few glaring technical errors. Colors are consistently natural looking, while the contrast is a tad higher than the natural lighting of the locations would suggest. Unfortunately, detail is just a tad above average and there is a fair amount of aliasing present as well as some occasional motion blurring that is consistent with an interlaced transfer. These errors are absolutely unacceptable for a 2010 DVD release and bring the overall presentation down a notch.
The English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track is well mixed, with dialogue warmly up front, while the surrounds build a bit of atmosphere in both battles and bustling towns. The score will give your system quite a workout as it's often used to drive home a dramatic point or revelation. A French 5.1 track is included as are English and French subtitles and English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
On disc one, an informative 30-minute making of titled "The Making of The Pillars of the Earth" is present; there is a bit of self-promotion, but much less than your similar featurettes on a Hollywood blockbuster. Disc two houses a brief featurette on the show's special effects titled "Visual Effects Progression," while the nicely animated opening sequence is given a special look via "Main Titles Progression" on disc three.
"The Pillars of the Earth" is a perfectly acceptable miniseries that succeeds solely on the efforts of the cast and character driven approach to storytelling. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but at the same time, doesn't always aspire to the high-water mark of other historical epics. Unfortunately, the technical presentation is a step backward and not as visually pleasing as it should be. If you don't mind investing your time for a basic, lengthy story, "The Pillars of the Earth" should be a pleasing experience. Recommended.