Medieval anarchy as a church rises in Pillars of the Earth

The television adaptation of Ken Follett's hugely successful novel about the era's political intrigue surrounding the construction of a cathedral boast a mighty cast.

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A medieval cathedral could be thrust into the heavens with the most basic of tools — hammer, chisel, saw and plane — but judging by the mini-series based on Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth, the politics could prove as daunting as the flying buttresses and as deadly as the sledgehammers that broke out the blocks of quarry stone.

As Follett tells it, nothing is sacred to the religious powers-that-be and sundry back-stabbers of 12th-century England, an era known as The Anarchy, in this tale about love, war, religious strife and power struggles that tear lives and families apart during the building of the Kingsbridge Cathedral.

"Ken Follett's storytelling artistry presents a richness and brilliance we dream about when searching for outstanding properties," says the producer Ridley Scott. "The scope and power of the story and the richness of the characters inspired us."

To date, The Pillars of the Earth has been translated into 30 languages and has sold more than 14 million copies worldwide.

North American critics chimed in with high praise when the mini-series premièred: "As addictive as Rome … I was quickly entranced by the dastardly villains, the crooked royalty, the bloody battles and, of course, the lusty lovemaking" (Boston Globe); and: "Viewers longing for a big, lavish mini-series to sink into will embrace Pillars of the Earth and its clever mix of action and art, architecture and politics, truth and beauty" (Denver Post).

Its epic tale is set in motion by the fiery sinking of the White Ship, an event that kills King Henry's only son and the legitimate heir to the throne. Henry's daughter Maud (Alison Pill), his nephew Stephen (Tony Curran) and his illegitimate son Gloucester (Matt Devere) vie viciously for the crown.

The up-and-coming Toronto actress Pill quickly accepted the role of Queen Maud, who stirs civil war in her battle to win back the throne from King Stephen, she told The Globe and Mail. "I read Maud's scenes and thought this would be so much fun. I mean, who gets to play a queen that often? Especially one so strong. So complex. And unafraid to shove her weight around in a society totally dominated by men."

Also reeking of treachery and greedy for all they can grab, the Hamleigh family of petty nobles tries to marry their brutal son William (David Oakes) to Aliena (Hayley Atwell), the daughter of Earl Bartholomew of Shiring (played by a white-bearded Donald Sutherland with a Santa Claus benevolence). Her rejection of William leaves him burning for revenge - and bad things happen.

Into this toxic arena enters the master-mason Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), a dreamer with visions of building a new kind of cathedral, a building filled with light. But times are harsh; the politics of the day force him, his pregnant wife (who dies in childbirth) and their children to wander the woods in search of food and work. Fate brings him to Kingsbridge Monastery, where the idealistic Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen) is embroiled in the struggle for the English throne. When the old church burns to the ground, opportunity knocks for Tom when Philip pins his towering ambition on a new cathedral.

The nasty horsefly in the ointment is the politically ambitious Bishop Waleran Bigod - played magnificently by Ian McShane (Deadwood) with a magnetic malevolence that glues the eyes to his every facial nuance and gesture. He and the Hamleighs make earthly life hell for the would-be-heavenly architects. For spice, there's also the mysterious forest-dwelling healer Ellen (Natalia Worner), accused of witchcraft, and her artistic son Jack, a talented carver played artfully and sensitively by Eddie Redmayne.

Follett himself was bitten by the acting bug, and cameos on screen as a merchant.

"I was very nervous about acting alongside talented professionals," Follett says in a press release, "but afterwards I saw (the director) Sergio (Mimica-Gezzan) smiling, so perhaps I was not so bad."

Shot in Austria and Hungary, this US$50 million (Dh183.6m), eight-hour German-Canadian production went so far as to hire Budapest stonemasons, renowned for their preservation and restoration of historical buildings, to train Pillars' lead actors and perform finishing work on the immense set.

Nominated for an Emmy as well as a Golden Globe after its US premiere on Starz in 2010, the series has won far more fans than detractors. One could also argue, however, that crunching a Follett novel into eight hours is a cruel endeavour at a time when another hit period series, Game of Thrones, has multiple seasons of hours to breathe and stretch out its story legs.

But don't be discouraged by Pillars' opening episode, Anarchy. Yes, it can be tiring to meet a vast cast and multiple storylines, but once you get the lay of the land, this mini-series explodes with action from the second episode onwards.

Your initial buy-in will be handsomely rewarded with medieval conflicts and vistas that rock a big-screen TV. History buffs will also take pleasure in seeing just how, indeed, our medieval forebears found the gumption - and faith - to build the first skyscrapers.

The Pillars of the Earth premieres on Tuesday and is broadcast Tuesdays and Wednesdays on OSN First HD, OSN First and OSN First +2


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