Having already made quite the bloody splash with “Spartacus” (a head-scratcher, that), Starz’s acquisition of “The Pillars of the Earth” — an eight-hour adaptation of Ken Follett’s massive novel — is another shrewd programming move, overflowing with prestigious British talent and a lusty story tailored to the pay-TV palate. Dealing with the building of a cathedral against a backdrop of royal succession in 12th-century England, “Pillars” doles out bloody battles, melodrama, illicit sex, rape, incest and revenge — in short, everything people expect from their premium channels, all in one six-installment package.
Such projects are often only as good as their villains, and “Pillars” boasts two fabulous ones: Ian McShane as Bishop Waleran, the scheming clergyman who will stop at nothing in pursuit of power; and the amoral Regan Hamleigh (“Viva Blackpool’s” Sarah Parish), the architect of her own plots — sometimes in concert with Waleran — to consolidate her family’s power and secure land and titles for her brutal thug of a son (David Oakes).
On the nobler side of the ledger is Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), who contracts to build a grand new cathedral with the Prior of Kingsbridge, Philip (Matthew Mac-fadyen), a pious sort at odds with both Waleran and the Hamleighs. The decades-long process of erecting the edifice plays out against an ongoing dispute over who will sit on England’s throne, as King Stephen (Tony Curran) capitalizes on a power vacuum to seize power, triggering a civil war with the former king’s daughter, Maud (Alison Pill).
Adapted by John Pielmeier and directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, “Pillars’?” two-hour premiere proves a bit of a mess at first, trying to introduce a staggering assortment of characters, from Tom’s extended brood to the Earl of Shiring (Donald Sutherland, in what amounts to a cameo) and his kids, Aliena (Hayley Atwell) and Richard (Sam Claflin), who will spend a generation’s time seeking to reclaim their birthright.
Yet as the story moves along in one-hour chapters toward the super-sized finale, the roots begin sinking in, with the bad guys’ various misdeeds mounting to the point where anticipation grows for someone to open a can of medieval whupass. And while the climax isn’t entirely satisfying, “Pillars” does create strong roles for its female characters, Natalia Woerner’s earthy Ellen and Atwell’s determined ingenue balancing Parish’s delicious wickedness.
Frankly, the whole exercise would be worth the price of admission (or rather, subscription) simply for the cobra-eyed McShane, whose Waleran makes Cardinal Richelieu look like a relative wimp. It’s also an endorsement of the miniseries or limited-series approach, allowing the producers of this international co-venture (among them Ridley and Tony Scott’s shingle) to invest the story with appropriate literary heft.
Starz has other similar projects in the pipeline, including a 10-part version of “Camelot.” In that sense, the channel has chosen its maiden venture wisely, inasmuch as “Pillars” lays a solid foundation for what’s to come.