TV preview: 'The Pillars of the Earth'

Starz's miniseries "The Pillars of the Earth" casts Matthew Macfadyen as Prior Philip, left, Rufus Sewell as Tom Builder, center, and Liam Garrigan as Alfred.
Starz's miniseries "The Pillars of the Earth" casts Matthew Macfadyen as Prior Philip, left, Rufus Sewell as Tom Builder, center, and Liam Garrigan as Alfred. (Egon Endrenyi - Starz Original)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

Billed in advertising as "the Epic Event of the Summer" (how many candidates are there, really?), "The Pillars of the Earth," adapted from a historical novel by Ken Follett, doesn't just kill eight hours of TV time; it tortures it mercilessly as well.

Dank, damp and almost unrelievedly joyless, the Starz miniseries tells a fictional tale of 12th-century politics and the skullduggery that was supposedly part of it, as knaves and heretics vie for the throne of a mucky, pig-ridden and sparsely populated England. The film, co-produced by filmmaking brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, has enough sex and violence to merit a TV-MA rating but lacks the campy panache of Starz's previous multi-parter, "Spartacus," perhaps the wackiest, raunchy blood-spurter of all time.

"Pillars" takes itself much more seriously -- the novel made Oprah Winfrey's recommended list, luckily enough for Follett -- and is, understandably, much less fun. From the outset -- a two-hour first chapter airing Friday -- the prevailing visual motif is mud and plenty of it. Filmed last summer in and around what have to be the least telegenic parts of Hungary, the film is overwrought and wearying, salvaged mainly by its occasional gory details and a few enjoyably hammy performances.

Donald Sutherland is top-billed but very briefly seen as Bartholomew, Earl of Shiring, who's around when a ship sinks during the opening credits but not much thereafter. Chewing scenery in his absence is Ian McShane as Waleran Bigod, a perverse, self-flagellating and obsessively manipulative monk who always looks like he's nursing Satan's own hangover. The bags under his eyes sag all the way down to his hips, or so it seems.

As good and pure as Waleran is evil and rotten is a young artist and architect named Jack, played engagingly by Eddie Redmayne; even Jack isn't above a bit of chicanery, as when he rigs a religious statue so that it will appear to weep in front of flabbergasted villagers. If only one of them had shouted out, "Awesome, dude," and livened things up a little. Jack is understandably smitten with Hayley Atwell as Aliena, whose political allegiances are a trifle mercurial but who encourages Jack in his bid to become a "master builder" and supervise a mammoth cathedral that rises slowly over the passing years.

Undoubtedly "Pillars of the Earth" will find an appreciative audience among those who go for this kind of pseudo-historical cloak-and-dagger stuff, but most of the characters are so creepily off-putting that it's hard to imagine viewers investing any emotion in what transpires -- love scenes, battle scenes (one that includes an on-screen decapitation), and many, many scenes of conspirators sitting around conspiring.

One must assume that the moments that provoke laughter do so unintentionally, as when a woman inquires of a character apparently known as Da, "What do I do, Da?" Do-Dah, Do-Dah. Or when horsemen charge into a town early in Part 1 without noticing a woman and a pig both in harm's way on the muddy street, inspiring another woman to call out, as a man rushes to the woman's aid, "Leave her -- get the pig!"

In a later chapter, townsfolk repel an invading army (of about 25 men) by building a makeshift wall in two days, thus evoking the famous battle scene near the conclusion of Mel Brooks's Western comedy "Blazing Saddles." There are several occasions during the long and talky film when you may feel like turning to whoever's sitting next to you and asking the immortal rhetorical question, "Are they kidding?"

The plot may be superficially complex, but conceptually this is a strictly simplistic enterprise. A peek at entries in Follett's blog suggests he is not among the more sophisticated of contemporary novelists. " 'The Pillars of the Earth' is a big book filled with many characters," he writes. "Some of the most interesting characters to write are the villains. Villains give the writer the opportunity to explore the dark sides of human behavior." Do tell! And Do-Dah! Follett sounds like he's talking to a 6-year-old child -- and talking down at that. According to the hype, however, the book has sold more than 14 million copies worldwide since its publication in 1989. Let that be a warning to authors who dare to aim too high.

The Pillars of the Earth

premieres at 10 p.m. on Starz.

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