Sunday 17 October 2010
For anyone who has not already watched Channel 4's The Pillars of the Earth, may I respectfully suggest they don't bother. You can't get the two hours of your life back (ten in total for the series) and when you die you'll still be kicking yourself that you wasted them on this futile exercise. I know I will.
Have a sleep, read the original Ken Follett novel which earned its popularity (unlike his wife's expenses claims), acquaint yourself with the Bible or go for a creep round a real church - evensong if you can find one - and you'll have one less thing to reproach yourself with on judgment day.
Perhaps it is evidence of the chilling of legitimate criticism that the mainstream reviews suggest a slightly over-blown adaptation of a historical novel. Or maybe they didn't watch it and just skimmed the press-release which came with the freebie. What they should have been gurgling with their chins on the deck, is that it is a turkey which is only of use to monster collectors; the projects where somebody should have torched the lot rather than carry on.
When lead character Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) is chucked over the battlements in an early skirmish he should have pretended to be really hurt; he's an actor, why didn't he try that? Or the pyrotechnicians should have done a more thorough job, burning not just the required set but letting it all get out of hand (clearing the area of personnel first, though).
Instead, it is a giant pile-up of a dramatic disaster for which no one person can be held entirely responsible, although the director SergioMimica-Gezzan has some explaining to do.
You can see how the accident happened, though. The producers, Starz, took $40 million (or was it £40m?) and hoped to repeat an earlier sword and sandals success: "Spartacus". It would also have the satisfying feeling of bopping HBO on the nose, as they think they are so cool after the acclaim given to "Rome".
Starz looked for a winning historical property and The Pillars of the Earth is undoubtedly that; 14 million copies sold says so. It's got a plot in the classic style, intertwining the highest and lowest in the society even if that relies on implausible coincidences. It has sex, violence, political skulduggery, romance, and Follett's own commercial instinct that if he wanted to know more about cathedrals were built, so would everyone else.
Starz were not mean with the sets either. If you want to set fire to a church, go ahead. To this they added a willingness to hire Britain's best-loved character actors, and Donald Sutherland doing a Dumbledore for lovers of craggy old Oirish men with beards. Gandalf? Pah.
OK, so the original author is in the clear. Follett handed them a working intellectual property. John Pielmeier then sculpted out the screenplay.
There's a convention with historical adaptations set anywhere between the Romans leaving Britain and Anne Boleyn; they are allowed wooden dialogue because it emphasizes the fairy-tale quality of the period. It's a balancing act well known to any amateur re-creationist. You have to stay in character and accept that the character can only have access to the knowledge and concerns of its own time. So long as you do that, the character will be convincing. If you import modern idioms or concerns the illusion will usually break down, unless the writer, director and actor have exceptional talents. Hmm.
Rufus Sewell did the best he could with what he was handed; the job of convincing us he was a cathedral builder, but the only real spark of grief was in him bemoaning his uselessness. He clearly knows nothing about building. For a start, he offered to begin work immediately. That's against law and nature with builders, that is. To be really convincing he shouldn't have turned up until episode 3, stayed for a brief scene, then announced he'd forgotten something and would be back in a jiffy, thereafter to appear in episode 5 at the earliest.
Sarah Parish took a spirited run and recreated a lustful mummy role of the sort we used to give to Stephanie Beacham. Parish (playing Regan Hamleigh) was required to do a great deal of the exposition as it is well known that all the male leads must be dolts. That being the case, the only other sensible character to have supported would be Queen Maud, but she doesn't.
Huffily referring to "Rome" the director got Parish to deliver as many scenes as possible while being humped. Except that in "Rome", they understood that this was to show the intertwining of politics and sex. Here, it was so that later they can re-cut it as an advert for crack-repairers. Verily, that ceiling needeth re-painting.
As for Ian McShane, we can only hope they flagellated him for real as that's what he deserves for this pantomime baddie. The role calls for someone who can portray a psychotic priest on the make; they have to be Lovejoy on the surface and a horny little devil underneath. What we got was a tetchy old quean and a hint of s/m, as if the entire film wasn't a form of audience abuse, especially that shot of what appeared to be a naked McShane trying to cram his ample frame in to a cilice. Better get the blacksmith to put a few more links in; that one has shrunk in the wash.
A special raspberry, then, for the casting directors Zsolt Csutak and Priscilla John who got the roles the wrong way round.
Sewell has already shown he can combine charm and ruthlessness when he played Count Adhemar in The Knight's Tale. He has his limits and one of them is pretending to be ordinary. Put him in as the charming manipulative priest who will turn over a kingdom to get to a bishopric and you have half of the motor of the story.
Despite knocking on a bit, McShane has the rumpled and obsessive look of someone who might have been a builder, albeit one of the flashier types. That's handy, because in this story that is exactly what the builder is: flashy and well on the way to architect. Promises you everyfink on parchment, but wait until you try to worship in it. There would have to be some massaging of the story to show why he was advanced in years but had young children, but that was far from unusual in the context of the 12th century with its mortality rates for women in childbirth.
The debacle was summed up close to the end of the second hour when the renegade nun Ellen (Natalia Worner) is accused of being a witch. Instead of saying a few words at her trial she jumps up on a long table, marches down it, squats, lifts her skirt and pisses just in front of the horrified Waleran (Ian McShane). Now, I don't know if you've ever tried this but there is a great risk of slipping off. However, I think the risk was worth it and I'm almost sure they faked the wee, but they probably didn't have to.
Then she stabbed him with a concealed knife and McShane tried to act surprised, but I don't think he was - and not only because he's read the script.
Here, have some Lovejoy to take the nasty smell away.