In the 12th Century, the English throne is being contested by two claimants. Queen Maud, the eldest child and daughter of the late king and named as his successor, and King Stephen, the king's nephew who has the backing of the Church and much of the nobility. As the civil war known as the Anarchy rages, other noble families take advantage of the chaos to their own ends, as the Hamleighs seize control of Shiring Castle after denouncing its lord to Stephen as a traitor. The lord's heirs, Aliena and Richard, vow to regain their birthright.
Meanwhile, Tom Builder, a stonemason left jobless by the war, joins forces with the ambitious Prior Philip of Kingsbridge to erect a massive cathedral, in doing so making an enemy of Bishop Waleran, whose ambitions will not allow the edifice to be constructed...
Pillars of the Earth is an eight-part TV miniseries, based on Ken Follett's novel of the same name. At its heart it chronicles the building of a cathedral in the (fictitious) village of Kingsbridge against both religious and secular opposition, around which swirls a number of real and fictional historical events relating to a bloody civil war and dynastic struggles for power. It has a notable cast featuring established actors such as Donald Sutherland, Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane, Matthew Macfadyn, Robert Bathurst and Sarah Parish, and relative newcomers like Hayley Atwell and Eddie Redmayne (who, if he was a few years younger, would have made a great Rand al'Thor if the Wheel of Time movie had ever gotten off the ground). It also has a reasonable budget (coming in at $5 million per episode) and excellent production values, with some great CGI and some nice Eastern European location shooting (albeit the fact that none of the locations look remotely like their actual English counterparts, but what the heck).
Is the series a success? Yes and no. If you've read the book you'll know what you are in for: lots of cheesy melodrama, a lack of historical accuracy, a dearth of character depth and some truly inane dialogue. At the same time, there's something fundamentally likable about this derivative story and its corny characters. The actors give enthusiastic performances (though Ian McShane is clearly lamenting the lack of the more nuanced scripts he had to work with on Deadwood and in some scenes is on autopilot) and, most importantly, the scriptwriter has squeezed the thousand-page story into eight episodes, which keeps it rocketing along like a greyhound on crack. Spinning it out to ten or twelve episodes would have resulted in longueurs packed with filler which the book suffers from in some sections. As it stands, the television adaptation doesn't really stand still long enough for the viewer to fully process its flaws (although there'll still be audible groans when William Hamleigh turns up to burn down Kingsbridge for what feels like the fortieth time).
Those flaws are legion but don't really seem to detract from the watchability of the series (although this may also be attributable to how terrible almost everything else is on TV these days). This is tosh of the highest order, then, but highly watchable tosh which does not require much exercising of the old grey matter.
The Pillars of the Earth (***) is available now on DVD in the UK and USA.