Monday, October 15, 2012

Follett’s World Without End

It was a time of poorly planned military adventurism, punitive taxation, and talentless heads of state demanding unquestioned obedience.  Fortunately, our times are nothing like England circa 1327, except for those last three points.  The Builders have erected the cathedral at Kingsbridge, but their descendants have fallen on hard times in the sequel to Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  The priory runs the town—badly—and the cruel French queen sitting on the British throne nurses a mysterious grudge against Kingsbridge residents in the four-part World Without End (promo here), which premieres on the Reelz Channel this Wednesday.

The fictional Kingsbridge has both a priory and a convent.  The former controls the city charter but the latter was entrusted with the purse strings.  The nuns are progressive, supporting modern medicine and dignified conditions for the common people.  The brothers are backward fear-mongers, who insist on smothering sick patients with dung.  People assume Brother Godwyn is a progressive, by virtue of his youth, but when he is elected prior, he proves to be an exceptionally ruthless Luddite.

As one might expect, Kingsbridge also has a bridge.  Unfortunately, it has become too narrow to facilitate traffic to the Fleece Fair, the town’s most important commercial event of the year.  The priory naturally looks to the knuckle-dragging Elfric to build a similarly inadequate replacement, but the commercial guild hires his innovative apprentice, Merthin, the disgraced son of the former Earl, violently purged by the Queen’s new tax collector, Roland.

Those taxes will be high too, even by the standards 2012 America.  Queen Isabella holds Kingsbridge in particularly low regard, partly because Sir Thomas Langley found sanctuary there, becoming a monk well regarded by both his brothers and the guildsmen.  Circumstantial evidence suggests he also murdered King Edward II in prison, on Isabella’s orders.  He is not talking about his past, but his presence remains embarrassing to certain people in power.

Langley’s arrival ignites all the scandals that will follow in Kingsbridge.  Merthin will pursue his star-crossed love of Caris, while her devious kinsman Petranilla schemes to protect her sociopathic son Godwyn.  Meanwhile, the Black Death and the Hundred Years War are wrecking a grim toll on the British, particularly in Kingsbridge.

A prestigious period piece co-executive produced by Ridley and the late Tony Scott, World is a throwback to the 1980’s style cast-of-dozens miniseries.  Sometimes it works on that level, but it is a maddeningly slow starter.  The production works best when focusing on the mystery surrounding the murder of Edward II and Isabella’s subsequent Machiavellian machinations. 

Indeed, amongst the sprawling ensemble, Ben Chaplin fares better than most as intense Langley.  He just looks like a man with a history.  Similarly, longtime MI-5 veteran Peter Firth knows how to chew the scenery as Roland, the somewhat reluctant Nottingham of Kingsbridge.  Indeed, his character has one of the richest development arcs of the series.  Also, look for 24 regular Carlo Rota (a.k.a. Morris O’Brien) as Caris’s not so fast on the uptake father, Edmund.  In fact, he is pretty convincing when facing the rough justice of the royal court.

Unfortunately, as the on-again-off-again lovers, Tom Weston-Jones (so appealingly hardnosed in BBC America’s Copper) and Charlotte Riley are rather colorless.  Cynthia Nixon is instantly unlikable as Petranilla.  Nonetheless, her vampy character is so anachronistic and blatantly on the make, it is hard to buy into her intellectually and Nixon never sells her on an emotional level.  Miranda Richardson tries to give it all high tone when appearing as Mother Cecilia, a sort of a Fourteenth Century Iron Lady, but World’s melodramatic inclinations are insurmountable.

If there is one thing that comes out loud and clear throughout End it is Follett’s antipathy for the Church.  Aside from Langley and his closest cronies, the brothers are uniformly depicted as superstitious misogynists.  Yes, there are plenty of documented excesses in its history, but this was also a time when the Church was single handedly preserving the wisdom of ancient western civilization.  Frankly, World’s anti-clerical bent gets intrusively heavy-handed.

There is something engaging about a big juicy costume drama epic, especially when it has enough time to sufficiently unfold every intrigue and double-cross. Director Michael Caton-Jones (whose credits include Scandal and Rob Roy) clearly understands that appeal.  However, the inconsistent cast and didactic point-scoring quickly become distracting.  Not really recommended for audiences beyond Follett’s diehard readers, World Without End airs on Reelz Channel, beginning this Wednesday (10/17).