The Pillars of the Earth -- TV Review

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Earls and kings duked it out in 12th century England, and the results of their cruelty, hedonism, plotting and cynicism is presented in all its glory and gore in Starz's "The Pillars of the Earth," a six-part, eight-hour miniseries.

Based on the 1989 novel by Ken Follett, this is a complex story or, rather, a complex series of stories with overlapping characters. The overarching tale is about the fight to succeed King Henry. His son, the rightful heir to the throne, died when his ship caught fire, a scene depicted in the opening minutes. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that, none of it revealed until the concluding minutes.

Here, the fight is between the king's daughter, Maude (Alison Pill), and his nephew, Stephen (Tony Curran), who forms an unholy alliance with the Church to capture the throne. Maude, meanwhile, bides her time in exile while she awaits the chance to regain the throne for her young son.

Beneath the umbrella of this larger story is the tale of Tom (Rufus Sewell), a builder who dreams of creating a magnificent cathedral. There also is slimy William (David Oakes) and his perverted mother, Regan (Sarah Parish), who are part conspirators, part pawns in a treacherous scheme for land and power. There also is lovely and spirited Aliena (Hayley Atwell) and Jack (Eddie Redmayne), the shy artist who loves her.

Best of all, though, is the cunning skullduggery of Bishop Waleran Bigod, played with oily finesse by Ian McShane, who has made a good living creating villains who are as dastardly as they are intriguing. McShane, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Al Swearingen on HBO's "Deadwood," easily is the most compelling character in "Pillars." Character nuance generally gets short shrift in this project, but McShane's measured performance is convincing and devious.

Director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan doesn't shy away from presenting period violence in gory detail. The camera might cut away from actual decapitations, but shots of spurting blood and assorted body parts make it clear that lives and limbs are not something to be taken for granted.

Of course, given the lack of other pastimes, the jousting, scheming and attacking practically are inevitable and likely the chief source of drama at the time. Far less predictable is the depiction of religion, and the Catholic Church, as utterly corrupt and endlessly cynical. As self-proclaimed gatekeeper for the eternal souls of the populace, the Church hierarchy does not hesitate to trade its blessings and condemnation for power and riches. Meanwhile, earnest monks like Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen) are far too naive and powerless to challenge the ambitions of their superiors.

Writer John Pielmeier also includes scenes that decry the inequality between males and females of the day. Although not likely much of an issue at the time, the topic of women's rights gets a full airing here.

The miniseries kicks off with a two-hour premiere followed by one-hour segments until the two-hour conclusion Aug. 27. Those willing to pay close attention to the long list of characters will be rewarded with a diverting story and several winning performances.

Airdate: 10 p.m.-midnight, Friday, July 23 (Starz)
Production: Tandem Communications and Muse Entertainment in association with Scott Free Films
Cast: Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen, Eddie Redmayne, Hayley Atwell, Sarah Parish, Tony Curran, Donald Sutherland, Alison Pill, David Oakes, Natalia Worner, Sam Claflin
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Rola Bauer, David W. Zucker, Michael Prupas, Tim Halkin, Jonas Bauer, David Rosemont
Producer: John Ryan
Director: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Teleplay: John Pielmeier
Based on the book by: Ken Follett
Director of photography: Attila Szalay
Production designer: Miljen "Kreka" Kljakovic
Editors: Richard Comeau, Sylvain Lebel
Music: Trevor Morris
Costumes: Mario Davignon
Casting: Priscilla John