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Whether it juggles populist fiction with historical fact or marches boldly into mythopoeic fantasy, the model for a certain breed of television costume drama has been reshaped in recent years by cable series such as Rome, The Tudors, The Borgias and Game of Thrones. Sex, cruelty, graphic violence, gore and political misdeeds are a given. But more than that, muscular storytelling and flavorsome character detail have become essential. It’s those aspects that come up short in the soapy old-school pageant World Without End, an absorbing but rarely thrilling illustrated edition of Ken Follett’s best-selling doorstop about 14th century England.
Weighing in at 1,100-plus pages, Follett’s novel picks up the folk of the fictitious town of Kingsbridge two centuries on from The Pillars of the Earth, which also was made into an eight-hour miniseries (shown on Starz in 2010). While the earlier tome revolved around construction of a cathedral, its sequel hinges on a bridge. Destroyed and rebuilt according to more intelligent design principles during the narrative’s two-decade course, the bridge provides an emphatic metaphor for the path from calcified, corrupted tradition to progress.
Readers of Follett’s twin epics are legion and should constitute a core audience for this bid by Reelz to get in on the cable craze for bodice ripping, bloody swordplay and medieval hair extensions. How far the uninitiated will get is the question, given that it takes much of the first two hours to sift through the sprawling cast of characters.
The historical backdrop is sketched with a few swift strokes, outlining the royal shakeup as the civil war ends in 1327. King Edward II has been deposed, with a push from his scheming French wife Queen Isabella (Aure Atika), elevating their son Edward III (Blake Ritson) to the throne. In bustling Kingsbridge, a wounded knight going by the name of Sir Thomas Langley (Ben Chaplin) arrives with a Big Secret; he seeks sanctuary by becoming a monk at the local priory.
Chronicling the late Middle Ages — the start of the Hundred Years War against France, the devastation of the Black Death, the corrupt machinations of the Church and the peasant uprisings against royal tyranny — Follett’s novel follows four adolescents into adulthood. Caris (Charlotte Riley) is a smart, compassionate girl drawn to the healing arts of medicine, while Gwenda (Nora von Waldstaetten) is a feisty peasant laborer accustomed since a young age to living by her wits. Then there are the brothers, Merthin (Tom Weston-Jones) and Ralph (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), sons of a fallen knight. The former is a builder’s apprentice with a natural aptitude for architecture, the latter a thuggish answer to Jake Gyllenhaal with grand aspirations and a talent for raping and killing.
Given that the script by John Pielmeier (who also adapted Pillars) necessitates major plot streamlining, the miniseries largely is protofeminist Caris’ story, as she and fellow lovebird Merthin circle each other at length until both parties accept the inevitability of their union. The other two youthful protagonists are less fully interwoven, in particular Gwenda, who only really comes into her own in the final episodes.
Dialogue shifts erratically between period stiltedness (“Have you not heard I’m with child?”) and jarring modern speech (“Hey, you’re Ralph Fitzgerald, aren’t you?”). Director Michael Caton-Jones coaxes a relaxed contemporary manner in particular from the younger actors, which functions well enough, especially when the lovely Riley and Weston-Jones are exchanging longing glances and tender words.
The series’ weakness is its villains. Cynthia Nixon appears to be having a fine old time as Caris’ aunt, the ruthlessly conniving vixen Petranilla, who has no compunction about offing foes and family members alike with her lethal potions. But the actress is miscast and her character unsubtly drawn. It’s inconceivable that her smirking malevolence would go unnoticed with all the accusations of witchcraft flying around. While writing an incriminating letter that will lead to another death, she’s even seen stroking a white cat, like some medieval Bond nemesis.
Petranilla’s only concern is steering her poisonous toad of a son, Brother Godwyn (Rupert Evans), to power at the priory and beyond. Evans spirals from sneering calculation to possessed dementia during the series, an evolution that’s fun but overripe. Peter Firth supplies a standard-issue bad guy in the politically opportunistic brute Earl Roland, while as Queen Isabella, Atika’s wooden presence and impenetrable accent render her treachery a tad silly. The only one on the dark side of the story with any interesting moral ambiguity is Ritson’s brooding Edward III.
The virtuous characters are likewise one-note, from Caris, Merthin and Brother Thomas to Miranda Richardson’s Mother Cecilia, the head of the convent, increasingly at odds with Godwyn. “Women today are either nun, wife or whore,” she sagely informs Caris. “And nun is by far the freest.” Mostly, however, she stands around ineffectually with pursed lips, behind which the melancholy-looking Richardson appears to be thinking, “God, I hate Helen Mirren.”
Shot in Hungary, Austria and Slovakia on a $46 million budget, the production certainly is handsome, with a seamless blend of physical sets and digital work to provide a lush period tapestry. The final clash between villagers and the king’s troops is given somewhat chaotic coverage, but Caton-Jones generally does a polished job, equally assured in intimate character-driven moments and action sequences. However, while the series is always at least mildly entertaining, it’s also stodgy. Even when it tosses in juicy ingredients (Incest! Fratricide! Gay monks! Lesbian nuns!), World Without End is just too tame and tasteful.
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