Adapted from The Pillars of the Earth novel; the best-selling work of well renowned author Ken Follett; The Pillars of the Earth tells the tale behind the building of a grand cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England, set against the backdrop of a turbulent civil war, that threatened the very future of the royal family, and the country as whole, during the 12th century.
Telling a tale populated with largely fictional characters, in a fictional town, but set against the backdrop of true, dramatic, and turbulent, historical events, Pillars begins with the sinking of the White Ship; where the heir to the throne of England perished after his ship caught ablaze in the ocean; leaving a large question over who was to rule over England (as the King only has a daughter left, and there hadn’t been a female ruler before that time).
Before his death, the King makes the Lords and Barons swear to abide by the rule of his daughter Maud (Alison Pill, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) until her son Henry can come of age, and assume the throne; something they all agree to, until the King finally perishes, and his nephew Stephen (Tony Curran, Gladiator) seizes the throne, with the support of the church fully behind him.
At the same time as these grand things are happening , a man named Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell, A Knight’s Tale) is forced to journey to the town of Kingsbridge in search of work, and a place to support his family; hooking up with a strange woman named Ellen (Natalia Worner, Four Seasons) and her son Jack (Eddie Redmayne, Black Death) along the way; and finding a good bit of luck when the church at Kingsbridge burns down, and the newly appointed Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen, Spooks) hires him to build a new cathedral.
Prior Philip earned his new placement by making a deal with a shady Bishop named Waleran (Ian McShane, Deadwood); who’s not only supporting King Stephen’s seizure of the throne, and the chance to get rich while a civil war rages on, but backing ruthless lords who he aims to bend to his will, and exploit for riches, power, and possibly an appointment to Rome.
The lords most associated with Waleran are William Hamleigh (David Oaks, Trinity) and his parents, who are also in support of the King, as he allows them to seize the lands of Shiring (and operate in opposition to Kingsbridge) from Bartholomew (Donald Sutherland, Dirty Sexy Money); who’s children become paupers, move to Kingsbridge, and vow to once again reclaim the lands their father once held.
And while that may all sound spectacularly confusing, it really isn’t; as you have the people of Kingsbridge (Tom Builder, his family, Prior Philip, and to a lesser extent the children of Bartholomew) trying to build the best cathedral the country has ever seen, but are constantly being raided by the Hamleigh’s; who along with the Bishop, detest the people of Kingsbridge, support the civil war, and are out for power, glory, and riches; against the backdrop of a civil war that’s tearing the country apart, and a conspiracy that could just as easily shake the foundations of England.
Yet with all that’s going on; in a story that spans several decades, and sees many major characters grow from children into adults, become elderly, and die; it’s the cathedral that holds everything together, and gives the people something to work towards or battle against, in spite of all the fighting, corruption, and dirty-dealings that are going on around them, and it makes for a brilliant story; seeing how just a few simple people could affect the landscape, and the whole countries infrastructure, simply by building an impressive looking church.
Obviously the cathedral isn’t the only thing to focus on, because you also have the civil war, various families trying to gain and maintain power in the face of adversity, problems within the church, the government, and even many traditional relationships; such as two step-brothers feuding of the love of their father, and the same woman; that mean The Pillars of the Earth really has something for everyone to enjoy.
It’s also filled with an impressive cast of mostly little-known actors, who despite lacking a big name, can clearly act, and make their characters convincing, believable, and worthy of empathy throughout. Ian McShane is probably the best known member of the major cast, and excels in his role as the corrupt bishop Waleran, thanks to the ease with which he plays a conniving puppeteer; as Waleran is very much the medieval version of his character (Al) from Deadwood, as he’s always out for himself, quick thinking, and generally gets others to do his bidding (a set of skills that McShane seems to have no problem emulating).
Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen, Eddie Redmayne, and the rest of the cast, also provide their characters with an air of believability, making them convincing in whatever they do, and easy to like or hate (although the latter comes fairly easily when you have characters in incestuous relationships, who go around raping young girls, and killing ordinary people, for simply enjoyment), or to simply understand their motives; which is often a testament to the strong writing and source material.
Ken Follett actually held out on letting anybody adapt The Pillars of the Earth for quite sometime; as he realized that a TV movie-of-the-week, or two-hour big budget film, couldn’t do the material justice; and only agreed to let this miniseries be created after he knew that Ridley Scott (the director of such grand historical films as Gladiator, and Robin Hood) wanted to produce it, and thought it needed to be an eight hour series; something which was clearly the right decision, as holding out has not only allowed the story to take place over enough hours to fully bring the world, and the characters to life, but earned Pillars the production values it needed to have; bringing the 12th century to life on screen in impeccable detail, and using authentic looking props, grand set-pieces, high-quality special effects, and some pretty decent battle sequences, to make it a thoroughly engrossing experience.
The grand story, smaller sub-plots, relationships, and events, all come together excellently, and create a show that’s just like one massive movie, and manages to maintain interest just as easily as any two hour epic could; by focussing on character stories that are easy to relate to, and setting them against a backdrop of grand events, peppered with dozens of backhanded deals, and twisted political deals, that make Pillars very much like The Tudors and, on some levels, easier to engage with.
It might be fairly obvious when watching that the characters haven’t actually aged as much as they are supposed to have (the makeup is good, but far from perfect), but that’s a small niggle about a medieval series that tells an impressive and thought provoking story, which is a brilliant adaptation of the novel (Ken Follett was very proud of the series), easily accessible by just about all audiences, and well worth a watch.
The video quality of the Pillars of the Earth clearly gets a boost from the fact that the series was filmed in high-definition, and looks suitably impressive (although obviously not quite as good as the Region A Blu-ray will); by having strong and visible detail, excellent colour reproduction, and some fairly deep blacks; so while the Pillars DVD may not be the best platform to appreciate all the intricacies and nuances available to a series filmed in high-definition, it’s nevertheless an impressive look for a DVD, in no way hinders the viewing of the programme; and keeps the series as strong and engrossing as a standard definition transfer can.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundmix awarded to The Pillars of the Earth remains adequate, but not overly impressive; as while it sports superbly crisp, centrally anchored, dialogue, some good use of ambient noises in not only the more destructive scenes, but in some quieter (yet appropriate) moments, and an adequate use of bass where appropriate, it lacks the oomph and gusto that the soundtracks of many higher budgeted, medieval based, movies are associated with; but still brings the sounds to DVD with no real problems, and will not hinder listeners enjoyment in anyway.
Coming bundled with only three special features, it would be easy to assume that the bonus materials attached to The Pillars of the Earth DVD release are nothing special, probably filler, and not really worth checking out at all; assumptions which thankfully prove to be totally untrue.
The bonus materials begin with the best feature of the series; a making of featurette which is exceptionally well made, contains interviews from all major cast members, author Ken Follett, and producer Ridley Scott, and discusses everything from adapting the book, the process of pre-production (including choosing costumes and sets, training with real stone masons, etc.), and shooting the series (including camera choices, creating effective practical effects, working with fire, and breaking down certain sequences), all intercut with behind-the-scenes footage, that does a great service to the series, is thoroughly interesting, and a must watch for any true fan of the series, or Ken’s novel.
Also included is a short featurette showcasing the progression of the series’ main title sequence; going from the company being hired, through the design phase, ideas, and storyboarding the decidedly Robin Hood-like sequence; and an eight-minute feature showing the visual effects progression in several key scenes; illustrating the progression better than any other feature, on any other disc, has before (by overlaying each step in the progression on screen to show the viewer the build-up, and including split-screen footage of the basic effects, and finished scene), an making for a clever, interesting to watch, feature that would be of special interest to anybody interested in visual effects.
So while the features included may not look like much at first glance, they’re all interesting, very informative, and particularly well made; and as such are the perfect accompaniment to the series as a whole, as they do what the best extras should; providing further insight into the production of the series, a breakdown of effects sequences, and giving fans that little bit more of an understanding of the effort that went into making such a well crafted show.
The Bottom Line:
Ken Follett’s seminal novel; The Pillars of the Earth; has simply been wonderfully adapted and recreated for the small screen, in a series that pieces together just like a single eight hour movie, and remains gripping throughout; by using a grand setting, and a turbulent time in England’s history, as the setting for several character stories that are well crafted, well acted, and very easy to relate to.
Having a tale that spans decades is one that’s often difficult to realize on screen, but handled well in Pillars, through the use of (at times questionable) makeup, and the building of the cathedral, which centralizes everything and everyone, and gives the characters a place to return to, something to focus on, and something other than the characters, for the viewers to really care about.
The video and audio quality aren’t quite up to the high-definition standard that they could be (especially seen as how the series was filmed in HD, it’s certainly not The Pacific), but are suitably impressive for a DVD release, and will in no way hinder anybody’s enjoyment of the series; which comes accompanied with a small collection of well crafted, and worthwhile extras.
In short, The Pillars of the Earth is simply an excellent series, that’s got something to appeal to just about anyone; a grand historical setting, some well placed battles, decent effects, bribery, politics and corruption, as well as coming-of-age tales, romance, and a high-reaching conspiracy that affects the foundations of the entire country; making it suitably appealing, and a show that’s not only more like a film than a series, but one that’s totally engrossing, able to rival The Tudors, and should be watched by everyone.