Ever since childhood I have been fascinated by English history. Among my favourite eras is that known as The Anarchy or The Nineteen Year Winter. This was the time from 1135 to 1154 when Empress Mathilda (more often called Maude) fought with the usurper Stephen de Blois for the throne of England. It was during this period that Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth took place and hence the miniseries based upon the novel.
I have never read the novel so I have no idea how the miniseries might have departed from it, but I must say that I am impressed by the miniseries The Pillars of the Earth regardless. The movie was backed by Tandem Communications of Germany and produced by Scott Free Productions and Muse Entertainment. Among the executive producers were the directors Ridley and Tony Scott. Its teleplay was co-written by Ken Follett and John Peilmeier.
As miniseries go, The Pillars of the Earth is an impressive achievement. Produced for $40 million, it presents a fairly accurate recreation of 12th Century England in its sets, props, and costumes. More remarkable is that it is for the most part it is historically accurate. Like the novel, it is true that there are portions which are pure fiction. While there is a town named Kingsbridge in Devon, it is definitely not the Kingsbridge of the novel or the miniseries, which is in Wilshire. For that matter, there was never an Earldom of Shiring. Regardless, the portrayals of Empress Maude and the pretender to the throne Stephen de Blois is fairly accurate (forgive me my political views of 12th Century England--I am admittedly a supporter of Maude), as is the milieu of The Anarchy. Like the book, the miniseries centres on the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge.
Of course, historical accuracy would be nothing if the miniseries was not well done, and The Pillars of the Earth is a very well crafted miniseries. Much of this is due to the cast, one of the best I've seen in a medieval epic. Like the book, the protagonists are Prior Philip and Jack Jackson. Prior Philip is the earnest, virtuous prior of the priory of Kingbridge, seeking to rebuild the priory's cathedral. He is played convincingly by Matthew Macfayden. Jack Jackson is the son of a mysterious Frenchmen who was aboard the White Ship when the rightful heir to the throne (Maude's brother William) perished aboard it and a Continental Saxon woman who practises witchcraft. Jack is played by Eddie Redmayne, who gives a remarkably good performance as the gifted lad with a secret that could bring Stephen's pretensions to the throne crumbling down. Also among the heroes is the Tom Builder, played by Rufus Sewell, the architect hired by Philip to build the cathedral.
The villains of The Pillars of the Earth are truly villainous, which should not be surprising given the fact that one of them is played by Ian McShane. Mr. McShane played the corrupt clerrc Waleran, a man who has warped the tenets of Christianity to fit his own ambitions. Allied to Waleran is Regan Hamleigh, played by Sarah Parish, a woman who could be described as a baser version of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. Of course, beyond the primary villains and heroes, there are a number of important characters on the periphery of the series. I have to give kudos to Alison Pill, who does a remarkable job playing Empress Maude (and, yes, Maude was really that young when The Anarchy began). Perhaps the biggest name in the miniseries is Donald Sutherland, who plays Earl Batholomew, the father of Aliena and her brother.
Beyond the cast, The Pillars of the Earth also benefits from a great script. Messrs. Follett and Peilmeier have created a teleplay that deftly blends fiction with history, creating realistic, but fictional characters who interact with historical figures. The dialogue has the sound of 12th Century England, without resorting to Middle English (the English of Chaucer) or even Early Modern English (the English of Shakespeare). As is to be expected of a medieval epic, The Pillars of the Earth is filled with political plots and counterplots, battles, murder, and mayhem.
Although The Pillars of the Earth is relatively free of anachronisms, there are a few. In England heretics and witches were hanged rather than burned at the stake. While on the subject of witches, I must point out that there is very little evidence that witchcraft was a religion, as some lines in the miniseries would seem to indicate. It is more likely that it was simply folk magic--a mishmash of charms surviving from Anglo-Saxon paganism, some old Latin charms, various rituals of Christianity, and so on. I must also point out that kites did not exist in 12th century England. They were invented centuries ago in China, but did not come to Europe until the Renaissance. There is one other major anachronism, but I cannot reveal it without spoiling the plot.
In the end The Pillars of the Earth is a well, written miniseries that can be appreciated even by those who do not have an interest in medieval history. Of course, I would particularly recommend it to anyone who loves movies such as The Lion in the Winter (1968), Becket (1964), or A Man for All Seasons (1966). Its run has ended on Starz, but it available for instant viewing on Netflix and should soon be available on DVD.