Ken Follet’s sprawling historical novel, The Pillars of the Earth, gave a wonderful glimpse at life across social strata in 12th-century England. Spanning the multi-decade construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, the book is as much a poem to architecture as it is a tale of intrigue. Minor innovations in stone work are treated as miracles of God. And while some of that passion is lost in the eight-part miniseries airing now on Starz, the intrigue is enough to entertain.
At its heart, it’s a story about ambition, both selfish and noble. Tom Builder’s (Rufus Sewell) driving ambition is to build a cathedral, a desire shared by the artistic young Jack Jackson (Eddie Redmayne) and the pious Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen). Their goal is thwarted by the selfish aspirations of everyone with power, whether from the church or the state. Money and titles are central to every decision made by those who already have some level of riches or power. The few honest men and women must use their own cunning and faithfulness to survive the onslaught of deception that rarely slows during the nearly eight hours of film.
Most interesting is the dynamic between the decent, humble Philip and his superior Bishop Waleran (Ian McShane). Both are equally devout in the belief, but while Philip strives to be a vessel of God’s love, Waleran immolates himself in a bargain for power with his Maker. Those who do the most evil exhibit the greatest fear of God, seeking penance in loopholes in church order, while one of the heroes, Jack’s mother, is content to play the part of a witch in the face of all the religious hypocrisy she sees.
Nothing comes easy as true love, honest governance and good intentions are met with resistance and hardship at every turn. But the constant struggle and little victories make for an engaging series. German production company Tandem Communications spent $40 million recreating Kingsbridge, Shiring and the other places readers of the book came to love over nearly 1,000 pages (plus the equally hefty, though less essential sequel World Without End). The only scenes to get short-shrift are Jack’s travels to Spain and his introduction to Moorish architecture and culture; in the TV series he only makes it as far as France.
But between the fighting, alliances, births, marriages, deaths and acts of desperation, there’s always enough going on back in England to keep the plot surging forward. The filmmakers have displayed a fair amount of ambition of their own, mostly of the noble variety.