Building a Dynasty

by Viorica

Starz's adaptation of "Pillars of the Earth" is surprisingly good.
I've become somewhat disenchanted with period dramas as of late. The Tudors (which I loathed) ended last month with Henry VIII's soul- represented by a pretty prancing pony- galloping off into a sunset, Rome was cut down in its prime, and precious few TV shows have turned up to fill the space they left. Of course there's been a plethora of period dramas, but I find that they tend to fall into three categories:

1. Look at this powerful, independent historical woman! Now, let's crowbar a romance into her life story, because clearly her relationships with men were more important than anything she accomplished on her own. (e.g. Kaiulani, Elizabeth, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, The Young Victoria, Lady Jane, any movie ever made about Cleopatra.)
2. Rebellion, fuck yeah! Some guy loses his wife/family to the opressing invaders, and by god he's going to get revenge! Usually while bellowing anachronistic things about freedom and equality in the process. (e.g. Braveheart, The Patriot, Robin Hood, Gladiator, King Arthur.)
3. Romance. Frequently based off of a Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte novel, usually set in the Regency/Victorian period, two people fall in love, and . . . that's it, really. Usually there's some wrench thrown into things by way of the class system, so that the filmmakers can point out how different and backwards things were back then. Sometimes they get a Happily Ever After, sometimes one of the participants dies. (e.g. Bright Star, Brideshead Revisited, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre)

None of these formulas are very good to begin with, and when they're reused over and over (and over) they lose whatever appeal they might have had to begin with. These days, when I see a trailer for a period drama in theatres, I just roll my eyes. And television- with a more limited budget and smaller scope than the movies- doesn't offer much in the way of an altenative. There are exceptions- the BBC's period dramas tend more towards being high-quality (well, mostly) but on the whole, it's a barren landscape. So when I saw that Starz was producing an adaptation of Ken Follet's "Pillars of the Earth," I was what you might call "cautiously optimistic." I've never read the book, but I have heard good things of it, and they'd certainly managed to assemble a stellar cast. The trailer looked epic enough, and it was about a period of history that I already love. On the other hand, Starz is also responsible for the mindnumbing |Spartacus: Blood and Sand." (I'm told it improves later on, but I'm not willing to put myself through the pilot to find out.) We're three episodes into PoE now, and my verdict as of now is: not a masterpiece (yet, anyway) but not half bad either.

Pillars of the Earth- the novel and the show- could accurately be called an "epic," following the lives of various characters throughout the war between Empress Maud and her usurping cousin Stephen. There's Tom, the builder, and his family; Jack and his mother, a former nun with a really obvious secret vis-a-vis Jack's paternity; Aliena, the daughter of an earl who was executed for siding with Maud; Philip, a prior who wants to rebuild his cathedral with Tom's help; the Hamleighs, a creepy quasi-incestuous mother-son duo on Stephen's side; and Waleran, a churchman who's also sided with Stephen. The acting is fabulous all across the board (finally, Rufus Sewell gets to play something other than a bad guy!) and the characters engaging. The female characters are especially awesome, mostly because the writers have dodged the trap of pausing mid-story to give a PSA about women's rights, so Aliena, Matilda, Ellen (Jack's mother) et all get to be kickass characters who happen to be female instead of Whedonesque Female Characters. Of course, rape gets invoked (I will pay someone to find me a period drama that doesn't bring up rape at some point) but it never becomes the victim's defining characteristic. The villains are painted a bit too broadly for my liking- the incestuous Hamleighs have yet to show any redeeming qualities whatsoever, what with the cheating and the raping and the . . . incest-ing. Stephen, with his Macbeth-esque prophetic dreams of his dead uncle is a bit more interesting, but still rather one-note. On the other hand, the good guys get to engage in morally gray actions- Aliena threatens to kill a priest who stole from her, Tom's son accuses a woman of witchcraft because he doesn't like that his father's boinking her, and Philip fakes a miracle in order to cow his enemies into compliance.

The plot started off rather rambly, but coalesces as the show goes on. The framing device is, of course, the civil war and the conflict and divided loyalties brought on by it, but we're also watching the cathedral being built (which is what brings all the characters together) and the various political machinations. As I said, the lead-ups to the Big Reveal are rather obvious- Jack's dead father JUST HAPPENED to have been found on shore, having JUST HAPPENED to have survived a shipwreck And look! A shipwreck is what killed the king's former heir, right around the same time as Jack's dad showed up! And there are hints of a conspiracy to silence the mysterious survivor of the shipwreck, which a dying churchman confessed to Philip right before dying! And Jack's father was executed for some reason that his mother has never been able to discover! And he left behind a Ring of Great Importance- which clearly carries some weight, because he used it to seal a letter which he sent to the king- that Jack wears everywhere! And Jack seems to be falling for Aliena, but of course that could never happen, since he's the bastard son of a disgraced nun and she's a noble, but if he JUST HAPPENED to have noble paternity, I bet they could live happily ever after, right? Right? Gee, I wonder how that could happen . . .

Before the cast is brought together, the narrative jumps from person to person, but things pick up a lot when we finally get everyone in the same place. By the time the third episode rolls around, the viewer is on the edge of their seat waiting to find out what happens next. I know I was. As I said, the show is not without it's flaws, but the seem to diminish with every episode. Hopefully by the finale, the less-than-perfect aspects will have faded into the background to the point where they're no longer visible. In the meantime, I'll be enjoying ride.

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Comments (go to latest)
Jamie Johnston at 21:52 on 2010-08-09
I'm not quite as super-excited about this as I was for a while when I forgot who Ken Follett was and confused him with James Follett, but it does still sound pretty good. There's a trailer for anyone who likes trailers, though it looks pretty much like every other trailer ever. Except there's a cool bit where Aliena puts out a candle. In a cool way. Also Donald Sutherland!

I like the sound of the cathedral-building (sub?)plot. You don't get much architecture on telly. And potentially a good way to dramatize the role of the Church in a community. Hope the series does well enough to be picked up in the UK.

Irrelevantly, Sarah Parish in the trailer looks spookily like Siân Phillips. Which in turns reminds me of that fantastic bit in the BBC adaptation of Ivanhoe where Phillips turns up on a big horse as Eleanor of Aquitaine* and does the verbal equivalent of putting King Richard over one knee and Prince John over the other and spanking them both, and also out-acts the rest of the cast put together. Can't find a clip. Anyone remember that scene?

* ('Look at your Queen, now back to me, now back to your Queen, now back to me. Anything is possible when your Queen is played by Siân Phillips. I'm on a horse.' Someone please vid this. I don't know how.)
Andy G at 23:42 on 2010-08-09
I'm totally with most of what you say about period dramas, but I don't think Bright Star is a great example of the formulaic period romances you describe. I mean, it's got a historical setting and a love story, but that's not really narrowing things down much. It's a lot less plot-driven and more conscious of the period than the other films you mention.
TheMerryMustelid at 00:31 on 2012-04-25
Call me shallow, but I get a big kick out of any period drama where Lovejoy plays a corrupt cardinal and Jeremy Irons plays a corrupt pope. Seeing Ian Mc Shane swan around in scarlet robes in Pillage of the Earth (I meant to spell it that way!) gives me the giggles. And come on admit it, seeing Jeremy Irons don that silver pope hat in The Borgias has got to make your day.

In reference to the first period drama Viorica mentioned loathing, I always called it Tudors 90120 because a handsome Henry the 8th did not exist after his early 20's. Trying to 'sex up' this beheading monarch makes my head spin in disgust.
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