Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Inspired by and based on a bestselling novel by Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth is a sprawling epic that takes place during the turbulent English reign of King Stephen...
When a ship goes down crossing the English channel bearing the future heir to the throne, King Henry I is forced to contend with the possibility that his throne may go to his daughter, Maud (Alison Pill), and her descendants. Little does he know that his nephew, Stephen (Tony Curran), has ambitions toward becoming ruler -- at any cost, and together with the evil Bishop Waleran (Ian McShane), strives to make his deepest desire a reality. The monarch meets his end the same night that his daughter bears England an heir, leaving Stephen to crown himself king and set off a bloody civil war. Maude has on her side one of the foremost nobleman at court (Donald Sutherland), but when he is found out and rumors of his intent to assist Maude in reclaiming the throne reach the ear of Stephen, retribution spills out into the night -- leaving many casualties. His children, Richard (Sam Claflin) and Aliena (Hayley Atwell), manage to escape, but not for long... and she is particularly sought after by a ruthless knight, William (David Oakes), who has other intentions than making her his wife...
Meanwhile, a stonemason named Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) takes refuge in the cave of an outcast, Ellen (Natalia Wörner), along with his heavily pregnant wife and their two children. But his wife, suspicious of their surroundings and certain that Ellen is a witch, insists on going once more out into the winter cold -- resulting in her death and his decision to leave the newly born child on her grave to die. But when he returns for it, the child is missing. Ellen and her son Jack (Eddie Redmayne) accompany Tom and his family into the local parish, to look for work, but the church, although in disrepair, cannot afford to pay to have the structure rebuilt. But when fire rages through what remains of the church and destroys their holy relics, Prior Philip () not only faces a pang of conscience in whether or not to replace the relics with counterfeits but also a tremendous burden in building a structure that soon will become the bane of Waleran's existence and bring about much strife, discourse, and rivalry over the next twenty years.
Although fairly wide in its scope and epic in the sense that it has an enormous character base (more than a dozen main characters turn up in the course of the story), there is something lacking in this miniseries. In some respects it remains faithful to the novel and in others it strays significantly, right to altering characters' personalities, bringing in incestuous elements, and changing major plot arcs in the last two hours. The cast is magnificent but the characters do not give off much of a sense of depth and the writer doesn't know what to do with his villains -- they are sufficiently evil but one questions his own actions so much that he fails to be as frightening as he should be; the other is manipulative but hardly emotionally intimidating. Many of the characters are simply not that likable, the boldest exception being Prior Philip -- in part due to Matthew Macfayden's sensitive depiction of a naive man left to contend with political upheaval. In some instances the storyline feels forced, but then perhaps I was thrown off a bit by the content. The middle ages were not pleasant and the story does not shy away from that, sometimes showing us its horrors in great detail. On the up side, it does have an incredible score and beautiful photography, and the final hour is particularly gripping and solid in terms of storytelling.
One usually searches for costume dramas that are suitable for most audiences, but this one will leave you reaching for the remote control far too often -- there are seven graphic sex scenes, most of them involving breast nudity on the actresses; Aliena is forced down on a bed and raped brutally by William; it's implied that he rapes a thirteen year old girl (his wife) on two occasions (in one, we hear her screaming); most fights and raids on the town include women being thrown to the ground and their clothes torn partially off, as men prepare to rape them; William is shown asleep on a bed with naked whores. Aliena goes swimming in the nude in a pond, and a young man joins her; we see backside nudity on both of them, as well as partial upper from the side on her. A prostitute flashes her breasts at Philip in the street. There is a reference to a monk having committed sodomy. William is heavily implied to have an incestuous relationship with his mother; she watches him bathe and puts her hand down toward his crotch (out of camera range), kisses him on the lips, and exchanges in manipulative but lusty dialogue with him.
Violence includes a lot of swordfights and hand to hand combat, fist fights, the smacking around of women, etc. Blood spurts whenever people are knifed, sliced open, etc. A man's head is cut off (implied) and held up to the roar of the crowd; a thief has both hands cut off at the wrist, and we see the sinewy stumps. Philip is brutally tortured with a hot poker. It's implied that a child is murdered; two men fall to their bloody deaths from the cathedral; a woman is smothered by having something held over her mouth; various characters are stabbed, bludgeoned, or strangled. Four f-words and mild profanities are scattered in the dialogue. Ellen exposes herself to a group of men (implied, not shown) and urinates in the direction of a priest. She is accused of witchcraft and on several occasions places "curses" on people (pronouncing evil will happen over them; once, she slices open a chicken and it sprays blood on a wedding party); her prophecies all come true. The Catholic Church is cast in a bad light, with most of the higher priests being corrupt, thieving, and ambitious, sometimes even involved in murders and assassination plots. Philip on the other hand is reverent and pure of heart, but even he at times manipulates for the good of his parish. There is emphasis on praying to saints and worshipping relics.
Some of the historical events in this series are inaccurate, but it does interest one in the time period and the events of the age. I found certain plot twists very solid and enjoyable and others seemed a tad contrived. It would have been altogether more enjoyable without the gratuitous emphasis on sexual content.