So you might have noticed I’ve got a little thing for the Middle Ages. Be it Arthur or Charlemagne, Margery Kempe or Marie de France, the period incorrectly referred to the Dark Ages has been a lifelong inspiration for me. In fact, I went through graduate school doing little else than perusing old manuscripts in Middle English and contemplating the motives of writers during that period.
But as such, I’m a really hard person to please when it comes to movies and film. It’s not that I think that I’m the most renowned scholar out there; it’s just that I get really grumpy when Hollywood spends millions of dollars on a film and can’t even get armor or basic historic fact right. Yes, I nearly walked out of the last King Arthur film (and don’t even get me started on Keira Knightley’s “armor”) . Yes, I’ve been known to shout or throw things in frustration, and go on long rants. I’m a medieval geek, what can I say?
However, sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. Just because I absolutely adored Ken Follett’s book, The Pillars of the Earth, didn’t guarantee that I’d like the series. So I wanted a little bit to start watching. I shouldn’t have worried at all, though, considering that Follett himself is quite involved in the show (and even guest-starred in an episode). What results is a medieval historical drama with as much intrigue as George R. R. Martin, stellar casting, inspired performances, and brilliant set and costume design. This makes me a very happy girl indeed.
So, if you haven’t started watching it yet, and need some reasons to, here’s some food for thought.
1 – The ease. It’s streaming on Netflix. Like, right now. Your XBox has approximately seven episodes (as of right now; there are a total of eight) of The Pillars of the Earth, waiting for you to watch them. You don’t have to rent it, you don’t have to subscribe to Starz. And if you’re like me, it’s likely you’ve exhausted much of your instant queue and are looking for something to keep your attention (one can only watch so much Veronica Mars, after all). If you’ve been waiting for a gripping story that takes time to develop characters and won’t cost you a penny, this is your ticket to happiness.
2 – The history. The Pillars of the Earth is, on the surface anyway, about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. And while that might not sound thrilling on a first glance, Follett’s story is so much more. The series is set during the political turmoil of the 12th century, when the crown of England was up for grabs after the sinking of the White Ship, killing a variety of heirs to the throne. The period is referred to as The Anarchy, or the Nineteen-Year Winter as King Stephen and Matilda of England—the named heiress to Henry I’s throne—battled, killed, and plotted their kingdom into near demise. But while the upper echelons of power are squabbling, Follett’s story also touches on the very real stories of very real people, including the prior of Kingsbridge, Philip, the builder of the cathedral, Tom, and their friends and family. The result is a broad view of life during the period, and the show does a bang-on job of showing just how duplicitous the nobility could be as well as how much the lower classes had to struggle to get by.
3 – The setting. It’s no wonder that I’m so fond of D&D. As cheesy as RPGs can be, they do, by and large, take their inspiration from the Middle Ages. In the series, the set designers and builders—on location in Austria and Hungary—attended to a wealth of details. The result is a full-fledged environment that goes far beyond what we’ve learned to accept as passable medieval design (far and away better than any Renaissance Faire). It’s dirty, it’s muddy, sure—but it’s also astonishing. As the cathedral is built in Kingsbridge, it rises out of the bleak landscape, a magnificent pinnacle of man’s capabilities. Cathedrals still inspire wonder in people, hundreds of years after they were built. But watching the show really gives you a measure of just how astonishing such a feat was in its own time. Plus, there’s tons of swordfighting–well done, I should add–and a good share of sexiness, too.
4 – The costumes. Medieval costuming is tricky, especially when considering the poorer classes. I mean, people didn’t have wardrobes worth of clothes. The poorer the characters on the show, the more often you see them wearing the same outfit time and time again. And even as time passes, the characters are still wearing elements of the same outfits. The more well-to-do folks, like Aliena during her successful turn as a merchant, get brighter colors and more interestingly cut garments. It’s those little details that truly speak volumes. And the costume designers aren’t afraid of dirt. Gone are the pristine medieval costumes of films like Camelot; when Aliena walks through town, the edges of her skirt get very dirty. As an added bonus, some of the costumes are quite simple–so if you’re looking for inspiration for an upcoming convention, there you go!
5 – The cast. Ian McShane, first of all, as the corrupt and diabolical Bishop Waleran. If you are a die-hard Deadwood fan like me, you’re likely perfectly happy just to watch Ian McShane read the dictionary aloud. Especially if he does it with some swear words! Add to that mix Rufus Sewell as well as a host of other actors—those you’ve heard of and those you haven’t—and I can honestly say it’s one of the best casts I’ve seen on a show of this magnitude in a long time. While there are a few stray accents, over all the consistency is impressive. And performances from the younger cast are in now way eclipsed by the more veteran actors. You’ll even see Allison Pill, of Scott Pilgrim fame, as Matilda of England (a.k.a. Queen Maude).
I could come up with a dozen more reasons you should take some time to watch this series, but five is probably enough to whet your appetite. What more is there to say? Great quality, great story, great actors. That’s not something we see much these days, in all truth!
So take a chance, and go a little medieval this weekend.