Monday, 31 December 2012

TV Miniseries Review: The Pillars of the Earth

Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Director: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Year Released: 2010
Running Time: ~60 minutes per episode
Episodes: 8
Status: Complete; followed by World Without End
Classification: MA
Genre: Historical drama

Based on Ken Follett's book of the same name, The Pillars of the Earth is a historical saga set in the 12th century, with the action kicking off upon the death of Henry I's son and the ensuing succession crisis between the king's daughter and nephew. The series is a veritable soup of players and plots. After the first episode, I rubbed my hands together in glee at the promise of meatiness and soapiness to come.

The drama centres on the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Knightsbridge. It is a project started by Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), continued by his sons Jack (Eddie Redmayne) and Alfred (Liam Garrigan), and supported throughout by Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen, who you may remember as 2005's Mr Darcy). Making life hard, however, are the evil, power-hungry bishop Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane) and the evil power-hungry Hamleigh clan, who want the priory's resources for themselves. These villains must also contend with plucky noblewoman Aliena (Hayley Atwell) and her brother Richard (Sam Claflin) in their power struggle over the lands of Shiring.

It's hard to describe the plot in any more detail without spoiling it all, so I'll leave it at that. I think, however, that you get the idea that this drama is a knotty plotty thing. I really enjoyed that – it was fun seeing what would happen, where things would go next, how one event would affect another and so on. It's the kind of show where half the fun lies in guessing the twists and turns.

Another pleasure is the cast, but for me it was mostly because I was able to cry “hey, it's that guy!” at almost everyone who walked on-screen. Some characters were distracting, but I'll admit this is probably entirely my own fault. For example, shallow old me had my attention diverted by stupid thoughts half the time Jack appeared – I couldn't decide if he was too pretty and whether he was creepy or mysterious. Also somewhat cringe-inducing was his method of seduction, which involved talking about architecture and then suddenly swooping in for a kiss. Though he was a “good” character, I wasn't sure if I liked him. By far the most distracting though was David Oakes as the vile William Hamleigh. The actor bears an uncanny resemblance to weedy shy guy Bret of Flight of the Conchords fame and there were many times I'd see William's horrible rape-y actions and clutch at my proverbial pearls, thinking “Brett would never!

Left: David Oakes; Right: Bret McKenzie
I just had to show you the two of them, brought together by the magic of MS Paint. The resemblance is uncanny, I tell you. Uncanny!

That aside, there are some (legitimate) problems with the drama, and these mostly involve characterisation. The good characters are clearly good and the evil ones are clearly evil; a few greyer characters are thrown in the mix, but they're only side characters. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – after all, sometimes you want to watch something where you can just cheer for the good guys and boo at the baddies. In this case, however, it detracts from the quality of the show overall. The villains are so determinedly villainous that some of the conflicts seem contrived and repetitive: while watching, I struggled with trying to remember exactly why certain (good) characters were so hated and why the villains would go to such lengths to make them suffer. Also, Willaim Hamleigh attacks Knightsbridge so many times that you come to dread the scenes where this happens. The battles also seem to blend in with one another. By the second last episode, everything becomes pretty predictable and (spoiler alert) the baddies get their comeuppance (hurrah!).

Another nitpick involves historical accuracy and general sense-making, which this drama sort of lacks. Most prominent is the character of Aliena, who, though likeable, embodies the modern “action girl” beloved of our times. 12th century class and gender norms don't really seem to matter for some reason. Further, the means by which Aliena comes into money really beggars belief. Still, this is a nitpick, so it's not a major issue but I'm sure it'd put some people off.

Oh, another thing that might annoy people is the supernatural element (in terms of visions, etc), but this aspect remains sort of ambiguous in terms of whether they're “real” or not and they're very minor. There are also some sex scenes and nudity, though they aren't nearly as gratuitous as in other shows (lookin' at you, Game of Thrones).

I enjoyed this miniseries. It looked good and it was fun and it was full of plotting and drama. Worth a go if you're feeling in the mood for something rich and historical and a wee bit trashy.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

(On another note, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!)

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