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The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth is the best kind of paint-by-numbers historical fiction: while it exhausts almost every cliché of its period and genre, it is nonetheless entertaining, perfect for lovers of history, action, romance and drama. Set during the twelfth century period in England known as “the Anarchy,” The Pillars of the Earth comes complete with lustful monks, displaced monarchs, incest, power-mongering, jealousy, greed, rape and treachery.

The upside for female viewers, who might normally feel marginalized by run-of-the-mill historical epics, is that despite the fact that its running time of eight hours is jam-packed with said themes, the film still manages to include interesting female characters. And even though all of the characters have been created using a twenty-first century perspective, rather than one contemporary to the story, they pique our interest as to whether or not collective humanity has evolved much since the days of Catholic indulgences.

The central plot revolves around the building of a Gothic cathedral at a priory run by a monk with good intentions. One of Prior Philip’s good deeds is to rescue a resourceful fleece merchant Aliena, a noblewoman who was raised by her mother to choose her own destiny. She not only becomes an entrepreneurial force to be reckoned with, while trying to restore the noble status of herself and her brother, a battling knight; she also attracts the attention of several young men, two with ill intent. Whether it is because they resent or covet her power and independence, Aliena falls victim to rape and violence. This begs the question that modern women have been asking for over a century: can a woman be both independent and loved? Many feminists struggle with reconciling heterosexual love with financial/emotional/intellectual freedom.

Aliena probably would not have thought of her situation in this way, but the series does, especially as it juxtaposes her against two other independent women: Lady Regan Hamleigh, mother to Aliena’s first suitor turned rapist, and Ellen, a supposed witch and mother to Aliena’s true love. Hamleigh, despite a physical deformity that renders her largely unattractive, is able to manipulate the men around her using her sexuality and flattery. She is one of the masterminds behind many of the evil deeds that thwart construction of the cathedral.

Ellen, a disgraced novice who fled her nunnery after conceiving her son Jack, is unique in that she is literate and multilingual. She is thought to be a witch and is consequently feared by many, mainly because she makes a habit of “cursing” those who cross her, and speaks openly about sexuality. When summing up her faith in God to Prior Philip, she says: “I love God, though I don’t worship her quite the same way as you do. My church hasn’t as many rules as yours and is a lot more forgiving. And as for morality, I use love as my compass, which Christ seemed to approve of even if you don’t.”

Conventional motherhood is constantly challenged in The Pillars of the Earth, especially when the most nurturing “mother” turns out to be a monk named Johnny Eightpence, who saves an abandoned baby after his biological mother’s untimely death in childbirth. Eightpence nurses baby Jonathan with goat’s milk and hugs him close during his fledgling years, much to the bewilderment of those around them, masculine stoicism being the social expectation for men. In this story, women rebel against established authorities and men cower under the weight of chaos. It all leaves me wondering if things would have been different were women the wielders of swords?

The acting is generally fine with standout performances from Hayley Atwell (Aliena) and Eddie Redmayne (Jack). The production is atmospheric and sufficiently gritty, though film stock would have brought out the nuances of the sets and costumes better than the HD Video that was employed. The screenplay was adapted by John Pielmeier (Agnes of God) from the novel by Ken Follett; all episodes were directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan. The series benefits from the persistence of vision of single creators in both categories as its rhythm and style are consistent throughout. However, Pillars feels pinched for time with many major characters. Pielmeier dwells too long on the details of the war between competing monarchs—background information that viewers can research—and sacrifices quality time with the elaborate fictional world of Kingsbridge. All in all, The Pillars of the Earth is entertaining enough to keep viewers hooked for two months and could have stretched longer.

Written by: Rachel Moehl, October 7th 2010

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