Ken Follett's novel, "The Pillars of the Earth", has made plenty of waves during the time since its publication in 1989. The book has found its way onto many "top" lists and just this past year it received an epically proportioned television mini-series on Starz. Clocking in at eight episodes, with an hour for each, The Pillars of the Earth set its sights high. Does it hit the mark? Or does it miss the target?
With names such as Ridley Scott, Donald Sutherland, Ian McShane, and Rufus Sewell, attached to The Pillars of the Earth, naturally one expects great things. The truth of the matter is that the series is not nearly quite as good as the sum of its parts. The story is portrayed well enough, the acting is great, and the dark tone of the series really lends itself to the overall atmosphere, but somehow by the end the show feels empty. The focus gets lost somewhere along the way and the series winds up bringing things that seem out of place and complicated to the table. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it's just not as good as it could have been.
The Pillars of the Earth takes place in the 12th Century and features a story that spans decades through a point in England's plight through Anarchy. It's a complex plot that is rather difficult to explain due to the intricacies of politics, character relationships, and world events. All one really needs to know is that the series features equal parts politics, religion, personal drama, and the construction of a grand cathedral in the small village of Kingsbridge.
Tom Builder (Sewell) and his family are left without home, food, or shelter after Tom is let go from a job. They are forced to wander to the next town and along the way they come across a mysterious woman, Ellen (Natalia Wörner) and her son, Jack (Eddie Redmayne). This fateful meeting sets a course of events in motion that sees Tom landing a job at the priory in Kingsbridge as the master stonemason. He overseas the construction of an awe inspiring cathedral and along the way he raises Jack as though he were one of his own children.
Jack becomes a focal point for the series and most of the events that take place in the story revolve around him or his actions in some fashion. His very birth has connections back to the death of King Henry's only son and the story surrounding that comes to fruition at the end of the show. Otherwise, Jack is involved in getting Tom a job at the priory and finds himself in the presence of King Stephen (Tony Curran), under the watchful eye of Father Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane), and working for Prior Phillip (Matthew Macfadyen) in Kingsbridge. It's through Jack that we experience many of the occurrences in the show and thankfully Redmayne plays him spot-on. Other characters in the series include Aliena (Hayley Atwell), the daughter of Earl Bartholomew (Sutherland), William Hamleigh (David Oakes), and William's incestuous mother Regan (Sarah Parish).
The Pillars of the Earth wastes little time jumping right into the plot and getting the ball rolling. Each episode carries over from the one that came before it and the focus shifts between all the main players. There are plenty of sub-plots to follow and intricacies in the script that will keep most viewers on their toes. The way some of these plots are tied together in the end is brilliant, though a few don't stand out quite as well as they could have.
I suppose that due to time constraints some things just aren't as fleshed out as they could have been. The cathedral is a focal point, but the attention and detail spent on it feels almost like an afterthought when everything else is put into perspective. Likewise some characters just don't seem to get the development time they needed to really give reason for their actions. Bishop Bigod feels underused, William Hamleigh isn't as much a threat as he should be, and the plotline involving Tom's abandoned child feels like an afterthought.
Despite some minor misgivings, The Pillars of the Earth is a very entertaining series. The story unfolds rather well in the eight episodes here and the characters are truly memorable. This is largely thanks to the fantastic cast that was assembled for the series, but pros are due to the script and cinematography as well. This is a beautiful show in many ways and it's one that comes recommended.
The Pillars of the Earth is presented on Blu-ray with three BD-50 discs. The show receives a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and comes with 1080p output and AVC encoding.
This series is a thing of beauty. The transfer for this Blu-ray edition is virtually flawless and it's a production that will leave any who watch it impressed. Colors are appropriately bright or muted depending on the circumstance, earthy textures ring through loud and clear, and flesh-tones appear natural and rich. This being a period piece the muddied and worn environment truly comes to life as dirt and muck splatters on clothing at every turn. It's darkly lit at many points as well and the picture remains stable with rich shadows and hardly any noise. There are a few instances where banding and blocking are noticeable, and at points the show seems to be a little too glossy for its own good, but The Pillars of the Earth remains a breathtaking visual experience.
For audio The Pillars of the Earth comes with an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track for its main output. The sound quality here really packs a punch. From the epically scored soundtrack right down to the directionality of the audio and crystal clarity, the DTS-HD MA track is a thing of beauty. It's perfectly balanced and never overbearing or bombastic. The soundstage comes to life with dynamic use of the rear channels and ambient noise such as crackling fires, squishy mud, and murmurs from peasants really gives the series presence.
A French language track is included as well, along with optional English subtitles for both.
For bonus features there's a selection of trailers and a few other extras as well spread across the three discs. "The Making of 'The Pillars of the Earth' " (27:36) is a rather complete production featurette that looks into nearly every aspect of what brought the show together. From cast to sound design, effects, and story, this featurette is totally worth checking out once you finish watching the program. "Visual Effects Progression" (9:49) looks at some of the special effects that went into the show and "Main Titles Progression" (5:39) focuses on the slickly animated opening sequence.
The Pillars of the Earth is epic in scope, production, and mostly in its execution. The cast does an amazing job, the video and audio presentation is downright fantastic, and the overall story is utterly captivating. The series does falter, however, when it comes to some of the details and its plot development. Some things about the show just feel out of place, the pacing is a little off, and some storylines are too convoluted for their own good. With all things being considered The Pillars of the Earth is still worth picking up. It might not hit the mark for all its ambitions, but it's a quality series with a fantastic Blu-ray presentation. Consider this collection recommended.