England is on the brink of a devastating war with France that will last over a hundred years. A terrible plague, which will wipe out a third of Europe’s population before it is done, is spreading. A young woman struggles to rise above suffering and oppression in order to lead her people out of the Dark Ages. With her lover, she builds a community in Kingsbridge that stands up to the Church and to the Crown. Together, they unearth a dangerous secret and must fight to save their town from ruin, ultimately ushering in a new era of freedom, innovation and enlightenment.
After Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth became a critically acclaimed and Golden Globe-nominated miniseries for the Starz Channel so it only made sense that the team behind the ambitious $40-million miniseries would grab hold of the rights to adapt the sequel, World Without End. Envisioning the project would be a success like its predecessor, co-producers Ridley and Tony Scott put their production company fully behind the production, rehired screenwriter John Pielmeier and brought in Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy, Basic Instinct 2) to direct all eight episodes of this even more expensive $46-million production.
Returning to the mythical town of Kingsbridge, World Without End is a sequel without any returning characters. Set 157 years in the future after a foiled assassination plot and successful completion of a cathedral closed out Pillars or the Earth we are immediately introduced to Kingsbridge’s new royal Edward III (Blake Ritson). Made king by his mother Queen Isabella (Aure Aitke), she in turn has been widowed after orchestrating the murder of her husband Edward II. By naming her son to the throne she still retains massive power and influence over her communities and villages in all the typical evil ways. She imposes suffocating taxes on an impoverished people while engaging in an opulent and decadent lifestyle. She pushes her people towards a war with France and engages in illicit affairs and nefarious betrayals and shady dealings. You know, like every other evil Queen or King in history (or, at least, historical fiction).
Within a jam-packed first episode we encounter a robust ensemble of characters, many of whom do not make it through to the end of the series. In Kingsbridge, we have prostitution, arranged marriages, the trading of daughters for cows, public hangings, herbal medicine practitioners, vagabond soldiers and power hungry heathens who offer a list of enemies for the Queen to target. When you add in the impending Black Death and Hundred Years’ War there is certainly a lot of grist for the mill when enduring the 389 long minutes of World Without End.
Our center point is Caris (Charlotte Riley), a beautiful medical student in training, who builds in strength and confidence as the series moves forward. Her mentor, Mattie (Indira Varma) is Indian, and because she relies on holistic approaches to healing she is branded as partaking in witchcraft. Merthin (Tom Weston-Jones) is a kind-hearted architect and love interest for Caris and his delivery of a wounded soldier (Ben Chaplin) into Kingsbridge opens a Pandora’s Box of intrigue and mystery. Countless characters stab each other in the back, literally and figuratively, and Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon plays a vile woman who will do anything it takes to ensure that her son becomes a monk.
Initially, the teleplay by Pielmeier is rather interesting as he clearly retains an affinity and feel for Follett’s challenging diction. With stellar production design and beautiful cinematography the entire production looks ready for primetime. Sustained over the long haul, Pielmeier’s teleplay proves to be the series’ undoing. World Without End succeeds in conveying that danger is imminent for these characters at every turn but becomes somewhat comical in how its actors struggle with dialects and dialogue commensurate to the time and location where the series takes place. If you have ever seen an episode or two of The Pillars of the Earth there is an all-encompassing authenticity and a heightened importance to the events transpiring throughout that is absent here.
World Without End labors forward with far too many characters and an unraveling script that meanders and wanders. Pielmeier introduces as many people as he possibly can and oftentimes we are juggling more than 20 characters in a particular series of sequences or episode. Eventually the sex, violence and overall gauche behavior become middling and shallow. Investing as much time as they have, the battle for Kingsbridge’s future should be throttling towards urgency. Instead, we are lost in the milieu of distasteful characters whose bad behaviors gain infinitely more attention and screen time than those who seek to fight for freedom and a new day.
Michael Caton-Jones likely needed this project since his good reputation and track record for cinematic filmmaking became soiled and discarded after his ill-advised Basic Instinct 2 received Worst of the Year notices in 2006. Marking his first turn behind the camera since that failure, World Without End becomes a tiresome bore. Make no mistake, the Scott brothers spent every last penny of that $46-million budget and, similar to Pillars of the Earth, few shows have ever looked this extraordinary or cinematic on such a small screen. Visuals can only take you so far, however, the only success Pielmeier offers is in adding more and more bubbles to this soapy melodrama.
Starz Channel was so taken by Pillars of the Earth that they optioned for the first look at the sequel. They declined to put it on the air. Counting on that exposure, Ridley and Tony Scott and their production partners struggled mightily to find a carrier for their massive production. As a few international companies agreed to show the series, the miniseries eventually landed on the fledgling movie network ReelzChannel. Notably, ReelzChannel do not release their viewing numbers and so, within just two years’ time, a Ken Follett adaptation went from something worthy of award consideration to something nobody really wanted to broadcast.
The ambition is notable, but World Without End is a fantastical letdown. The series should be praised for its beautiful appearance, Mychael Danna’s engaging score, and nice performances from Charlotte Riley, Ben Chaplin and Tim Weston-Jones. All the same, I cannot think of a more expensive, lackluster and unsatisfying television production.
World Without End finds its eight episodes presented across two dual-layer 50GB Blu-Ray MPEG-4 AVC Video discs with 1.85:1/1080p transfers.
This Blu-ray set features an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack as well as a French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio option. An English Audio Descriptive Track is available in 5.1 Dolby Digital as well. World Without End features optional English, English SDH, Arabic, French and Hindi subtitles.
Only one special feature is included. At 24 minutes, The Making Of Ken Follett’s World Without End is a paint-by-numbers primer on how Follett’s novel was adapted for the miniseries. We see behind-the-scenes looks at the meticulous production design, learn about the decisions made by director Michael Caton-Jones and watch the standard fleeting interviews with cast and crew. The one segment that serves of true interest comes with seeing how the impressive bridge collapse sequence from episode two was staged, easily the crown jewel moment of the entire miniseries.
World Without End was not supposed to be this problematic. After Pillars of the Earth became such a runaway success, it is fair to expect that Ridley and Tony Scott expected more. Sadly, in final form, this is a project that would have been better left alone.