We don’t cover that many mini-series box sets on here and the reason is quite simple, it takes a lot longer to review them than a movie or Blu-ray. Take this World Without End set for example, as well as eight episodes, each forty five minutes long, there is also the making of and a fair amount of background research to do, including reading the original book! Suffice to say in my opinion, it was worth the effort, as this is an extremely well-produced series, even if the screenplay pays no more than lip service to Ken Follett’s book at times and takes a few liberties with his quite carefully researched tome.
Set in the middle ages – and some 157 years after Pillars of the Earth, the stories are set around the Cathedral town of Kingsbridge. It is not a time of great change for the peasants, they keep on labouring under harsh rule to keep their masters fat, but as always there are political wranglings and the suspicious death of the deposed King to keep things interesting at court. The town is dominated and indeed ruled by the Priory, while the financial power rests with the nuns, where bequests from rich widows and careful monetary husbandry have swelled the coffers. The town’s principle wealth comes from its bridge – hence the name, but it is old and narrow and in serious need of repair. Not a promising start as a high energy, adrenaline fuelled romp through history then. Actually, romp is quite an appropriate word, as according to this adaption, most peasant woman spent half their lives on their backs while various members of the gentry performed unwanted molestations and worse upon their poorly covered bodies. The success of the Spartacus series proves that sex sells, and although this is not in the same league, there is certainly plenty of both fornication and fighting here to satisfy most viewers.
The cast is an eclectic mix of English, American and European talent, some – like Miranda Richardson, Charlotte Riley and Ben Chaplin you will have heard of, but others are much less well known but equally talented. Much of this film’s strength comes from the power of some of these performances. I would say that the standard of acting is on a par with Spartacus and other similarly high budget presentations. For a full breakdown of the full cast, I would suggest a quick trip over to IMDB, as there are really too many to discuss in this short review. What I will try to do however is give you an overview of some of the main protagonists and also some context for the various storylines.
It is probably better to sort out some of the family groupings of the major characters first. For any fans of the Follett book, these stay pretty much intact, even if a few details are changed to suit the revised narrative. Starting with the key characters, we have the brothers Merthin and Ralph (Tom Weston-Jones & Oliver Jackson-Cohen). They are the sons of a disgraced knight, so do not hold land or titles. Merthin is the older, wiser brother, but his younger sibling uses cunning and greater fighting ability to win his place as a squire and eventually Knight in the King’s army. Where Merthin is gentle, kind and a skilled craftsman, Ralph is a bully, murderer and liar. He asserts his authority with his chainmail fist, but eventually his sins will catch up with him and he will need all his luck simply to survive. There is quite a lot of deviation from the book with these two, as Merthin is never portrayed in print as a leader of men as much as he is in the film and the suggestion is that Ralph’s bullying is as a direct result of his service to the King, not so much for his own personal gain.
Moving to the priesthood, we must start with Brother Godwyn (Rupert Evans). Despite his initial lowly status as little more than a novice, his mother has great plans for him and was probably the first helicopter parent. She wants him to become Prior and rule over all of Kingsbridge under her tutelage. Greasy, conniving and not beyond the occasional murder himself, Godwyn will never be liked, or even respected by the townsfolk, even if he has pulled the wool over the eyes of his fellow monks. In fact, his evil and ungodly demeanour is the central tennant of many of the tales. His mother – Petranilla (Cynthia Nixon) has a much greater role in the film than she does in the book. So far as she is concerned, nothing can get in the way of God’s wishes and so murder and sedition are fair and forgivable if the end result meets her plans. Balancing out the dark side of the church we get the weighty might of Mother Cecilia (Miranda Richardson). I have to assume she has donned a few extra layers of padding for this role, as she comes across as the well fed, barrel chested Prioress extremely well. Much more of a progressive than Godwyn, they fail to see eye to eye from early on, after she denies him the right to study medicine at Oxford College due to his archaic views and inability to cope with bleeding bodies. This is a major deviation from the book, as in print Godwyn gets his wish, but studies theology. Another man we cannot overlook is Brother Thomas (Ben Chaplin). He comes to the Priory seeking sanctuary due at least in part to his knowledge about the old King’s death. As the story progresses, he moves away from his former life as a knight and settles into the life of the priory, as well as that of one or more of his fellow monk’s beds. Who knew such things went on in the dark ages! He is still a good man and is well respected within the Priory. The last of the monks we shall mention is Brother Joseph (David Bradley). Lifted straight out of his role as Filch in Harry Potter, he is the physician to the town, with ideas as ancient as he is and a penchant for treating most wounds with a dung poultice, usually closely followed by amputation of the affect part shortly afterwards.
Competing with Brother Joseph as the town’s healer is Caris (Charlotte Riley). Despite her mentor being condemned as a witch, she continues to heal the town’s sick – including the King of England, but her love for Methin remains unfulfilled, as fate seeks to keep them apart. In the books, she has an unlikely friend in Gwenda (Nora von Waldstätten), but in the series, this is ignored and Gwenda is portrayed as the daughter of a travelling hawker of foreign descent. Raped, abused and eventually traded for a cow by her Father, Gwenda is a strong, independent woman. She falls foul of Ralph, when she seeks to right a wrong he has done to Wulfric (Tom Cullen) but ends up marrying Wulfric while carrying Ralph’s child.
Last but not least, we have the royal party. King Edward III (Blake Ritson) is the initially weak newly crowned King of England. His mother has deposed of his father, King Edward II, but he has seen through her empire building and shuts her out. It is the start of the Hundred Years War and the King urgently needs money and men to put down the French and bring the English provinces on the continent back under his control.
So, in just 700 words or so, that’s the main characters and less than half the principle cast! Kingsbridge really is a busy town. There is so much interweaving of the characters that it can be tricky to follow the various threads, but generally everything resolves itself pretty cleanly by the end.
The scripts themselves have been written to work in pairs. This is to allow the broadcasters the flexibility to transmit them as either single, forty five minute episodes or as longer features of twice the length. Within this framework however, years can pass between stories, but many characters do not seem to age that much. The buildings also do not seem to change or age much either, which makes it complicated at times to work out the time jump. Shot like many middle England movies and series before, in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Austria and Slovakia to be precise on this occasion) the sets are impressive and the backgrounds suitably green and pleasant. Much use of CGI can be detected, but it is of a high standard and does not detract from the settings. The main stories all revolve around power struggles, with the Priory at the centre of most of them. Godwyn is trying to build his position within the order, and this includes his own palace, Merthin wants to build a better bridge, but the Priory pleads poverty. The king wants more than his fair share of taxes from the sheep’s wool buyers from Italy and every red blooded male of noble descent wants to prove his might between the thighs of a peasant woman. Brother fights brother, family frames family and no one is quite sure whose child is whose. It’s like every soap ever written, just a bit ruder and set in a slightly more believable scenario! What would a medieval drama be without the plague? Although not a central theme throughout the series, it does have a pretty large part to play in some of the later episodes.
The question is, is it enjoyable? The answer is yes, it is. Do you gain anything over watching it on TV? Possibly not, but if you missed it or did not have access to it on one of the catch up services, this makes for a good viewing method. Many are horrified by the deviations from the Follett novel and as this heavily affects the opening chapters, it is instantly recognisable. The lack of character settings and family context makes this series initially confusing, but a few episodes in and things start to become clearer. The problem is much that has been thrown away is the all important back story. Without this, it is difficult to relate the actions of some characters and this can make their actions seem unnecessary or unconvincing. Maybe due to budget limitations, we tend to see more of the aftermath of some of the greater battles and disaster scenes, with the bloodied and smoking remains of the razed village, rather than the actual destruction itself. I suppose this makes this more of a drama than an action series, but some will therefore be unhappy with the amount of violence, particularly the rapes and more bloody executions. There are exceptions to this and the destruction of the French army by English is very full on, if a little short.
If you enjoyed the TV series, or missed it and enjoy high budget action dramas, there is little to put you off buying this box set. Avid readers of Ken Follett may be less impressed, due to the major omissions from the original book leading to rather large holes in the back story. All in all though, it remains an absorbing six and a half hours of entertainment.
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