Review: Pillars of the Earth, Sewell Shines in this Long Affair

Monsters and Critics, 23 July 2010
By April MacIntyre

NO SPOILERS: Starz brings the ambitious and quite hefty Ken Follett novel, "The Pillars of the Earth" to viewers as a star-studded eight-hour miniseries, premiering on Starz on Friday, July 23 at 10/9C. The mini-series will air two hours tonight and another hour every Friday.

For those unfamiliar with the excellent tome, the epic is set in the High Middle Ages of 1120 AD - a time where Europe was emerging from the really Dark Ages and Catholicism and the papal long arm of the law was akin to a visit from "Land Shark," and nobody sassed the clergy, or else.

Or royalty for that matter. England, with all the rich history of its monarchy is the stage for this power play tale that takes a common man, Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), and places his enormous talent to conceptualize great cathedrals with his masonry and architectural skills, and puts him and his family to work as quasi-indentured slaves to the Church in a grand plan. In fact many of the most notable Gothic cathedrals were built or completed during this era.

All of Tom's toils occur during a massive power struggle for the crown of England. This time also was defined by the still-powerful Catholic Church which culled armies of men from across Europe to a series of Crusades against the Islamic Turks, who occupied the Holy Land. This happens in "Pillars' with one character.

There are themes of murder, mother and son incest, torture, bleeding the sick and all the horrid things imaginable from a time period where people tossed their waste out into the open street gutters, and bathed infrequently if ever.

"Pillars of the Earth" feels much less than we are used to seeing on the big screen, from Ridley Scott and his brother Tony Scott, the Executive producers, and has a more intimate feel to the production.

The themes, brief nudity and language make "Pillars of the Earth" a show for the mature audience, and brings a retro feel to the mini-series where really complex stories are allowed to marinate and the drama is fleshed out with excellent actors.

My biggest complaint for this epic undertaking is that the first two hours of the tale, certainly filled with gruesome events, put me to sleep twice. I stuck it out and watched the whole eight hours and found the show to get better as time progressed, mainly because of my blind adoration for stars Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell, as the latter actor really steals the show here.

McShane as Bishop Waleran has an unfortunate Moe of the Three Stooges haircut (historically accurate I'm sure) and his incessant lurking in half-lit frame made me hanker for the days of Al Swearengen, "Deadwood's" resident lusty "c*cksucker" slinger.

Other issues included makeup, a craft I always pay attention to. Nobody ages! The event spans many decades during a time when the average person dies at 34. This made me crazy, and the extras milling about at times when I did wake up had me thinking some classic Monty Python was on late night telly, as I used to watch it.

So our big themes are the English crown and the War of Succession, the construction of an ambitious cathedral, and the Church's hubris and comeuppance in the face of true sin.

"Pillars of the Earth" revolves on the tribulations of the honorable good guys, Rupert Sewell's Tom, Matthew MacFadyen's put upon Friar Philip, Hayley Atwell's Aliena and Eddie Redmayne's Jack, who all must navigate the baddies hell bent on their demise.

When you have period pieces to hold against an effort like this (HBO's "Rome" or Showtime's upcoming "The Borgias" and "The Tudors") the bar is high, and you would expect a lot more from the Scott brothers by way of amassing the best craftspeople in the industry to at least make this shine. Granted, this was a grittier and less opulent time than those epics, but still, I was not bowled over by the camera work, or anything else for that matter.

The series has its moments, and shines with Sewell, Redmayne and Donald Sutherland (briefly) and for any English history buffs and fans of Follett, a juicy enough roast to tuck into during the traditionally salad days of summer TV season.

"Pillars of the Earth" premieres on Starz on Friday, July 23, 2010.

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