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. Caris, a visionary young woman, struggles to rise above the suffering and oppression in order to lead her people out of the Dark Ages. With her loverMerthin, she builds a community in Kingsbridge that stands up to the church and 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.
'World Without End' is author Ken Follett's follow-up to the successful, and well-regarded historical novel, 'The Pillars of the Earth,' and, like most sequels that come more than a decade after their predecessor, there were some expectations that possibly proved too lofty for a popular and prolific author such as Follett to achieve. The sequel was certainly not met with disdain or derision – which is so often the case with continuations such as this – but it wasn't granted the same level of adoration 'Pillars' received, either.
The same can be said of the respective miniseries adapted from both novels; 'The Pillars of the Earth' was well received by most critics, despite a significant paring down of the novel, even with 8 hours of screen time at the project's disposal. As such, after the success and praise of the first miniseries, the producers – including Ridley Scott and his brother, the late Tony Scott, through their Scott Free Productions – secured the rights to 'World Without End' and quickly began work. (As a side note, this review is well aware of the significant differences between the book and the miniseries, but will refrain from making comparison's too often.)
Set one hundred years after the events in 'Pillars,' 'World Without End' once more returns to the fictional town of Kingsbridge, during the reign of King Edward III. Much of the larger, historical plotting is concerned with King Edward's war with the French – which would become the Hundred Years War – and the beginning of the boil-infused pestilence known as the Black Death, or the Bubonic Plague. These are interesting times, prone to over-romanticism by many, but certainly rich with potential and thematic elements. It is, unfortunately, the former that dictates much of the miniseries and attempts to add further interest and fascination in its characters by adorning them with narrative contrivances of the most melodramatic kind.
'World Without End' is adapted from Follett's novel by John Pielmeier, who also served as the screenwriter for 'The Pillars of the Earth,' and it's clear from the start that he's working with something of a lesser animal. Faced with the prospect of balancing an incredibly large cast of characters, each with his or her own sizeable storyline, Pielmeier's script opts to ramp up the heavy melodramatic elements in lieu of more legitimate character development and a throughline for each that has some kind of resonance within the larger context of the plot. It's understandable that this occurs; the miniseries is, after all, clearly intended to be a melodrama whose highs and lows swing with the same operatic glee as so many daytime soaps. In that regard, the program, when looked at as a whole, operates less like chapters in a single story, and more like slightly disparate elements cobbled together to give the feeling of something grand.
And grand it is; with 8-hours at its disposal, the story of 'World Without End' spans more than a decade, beginning in 1327, as King Edward II is defeated in a brutal civil war by his wife Queen Isabella (Aure Atika). Though she and her son, Edward III (Blake Ritson), play an integral part in the story, it is not one where kings and queens participate in royal games and scheme to maintain or increase their rule. The characters that primarily fill the story are those with far lesser authority, and, more importantly, those with no influence whatsoever. And yet, because this is fiction, it is in these seemingly powerless characters that the plot turns and progresses the most.
Familiar medieval tropes are brought right to the forefront of the story. Caris (Charlotte Riley), a young, intelligent and free-spirited young woman who places a higher emphasis on education and the study of medicine than in finding a husband, sits at the center of the plot. Meanwhile, at the opposite end is her older cousin, the weasel-like, slightly perverted and totally power-hungry Godwyn (Rupert Evans, 'Hellboy') – who begins the series as a sacrist in the Kingsbridge monastery, but works his way up the ranks to bishop through various backhanded methods and acts of skullduggery. Much of what transpires in the series hinges on Caris and Godwyn, but there are also those in their inner circles; namely, Godwyn's conniving mother, Petranilla (Cynthia Nixon), Caris' long, unrequited love, Merthin (Tom Westin-Jones, 'Copper'), his brother Ralph (Oliver Jackson- Cohen) and the man who started it all, Sir Thomas Langley (Ben Chaplin).
This is only a smidgen of the entire cast, whose stories strive to tell a tale that's really about the abuse of power by those who wield it with god-like authority, and those who have power simply because they are men. In its soapy way, 'World Without End' almost revels in the miserable conditions most women were forced to live simply due to the fact they held status as second-class citizens. There's plenty of such abuse depicted during the 8-hour run of the series, where women are forced into marriages for the sake of their family, or forced to endure the unwanted advances of men simply because they held sway over all things female. In a way, the would-be epic is devoted to portraying the struggles of the underclass (men and women alike), as well as the trials and tribulations of those whose thinking failed to fall in line with the canon of the period.
And through this, Pielmeier's script meets its first major stumbling block. Amongst all the knightly violence and peasants stirring the pot against the almighty church and the king, there appears a litany of very modern ideas and notions, spelled out in overly verbose proclamations that seem incredibly forced and contrived against the backdrop of 14th century England. The artificiality of these concepts and ideas, and, primarily, the way in which those backing them handle the integration of such uncommon principles largely serve to pull the viewer out of the period and into an unnecessarily modern story set against an ancient milieu.
The acknowledgement that theology takes precedence over science – which is largely considered the work of the devil, witches, or other supernatural entities with evil intentions for humanity – or that homosexual relationships were likely common, are not unusual to stories like this – just take a look at other, less historical works of the same ilk and the evidence is quite striking. The problem is the anachronistic manner in which these ideas are presented and dealt with that rings false. The idea of enlightened doctors, feminists, and people practicing actual tolerance in a battle against the ignorance of the status quo feels somewhat before its time and mostly out of place. What the viewer is left with is a miniseries intent on integrating modern elements into the storyline to differentiate the characters from one another and make the tale more palatable to audiences.
The problem is that there are so many characters, the only thing the script manages to do is grant them the thinnest of motivations and thrust them out into the harsh pseudo-reality of 14th century England. Characters lust for power, and that propels them through the story – otherwise they're so good by nature they exist to repeatedly be put upon and tortured for their own kindheartedness. Caris, for example, suffers near-constant recrimination for her efforts to help others, yet continues in her plight. Normally this would be the mark of the hero, but here, the cause and effect of such accusation and punishment is so melodramatic that is goes well beyond the concept of heroism or nobility, and crashes firmly into the realm of stupidity. There's a limit to how long the audience can handle such repetition of failures and successes before the cyclical nature of it all grinds interest to a halt.
'World Without End' is, in the end, a somewhat silly, but ultimately entertaining piece of work that's capable of making the overdramatic elements function within the confines of the tale it is attempting to tell. While it fails to be as compelling as its predecessor, and as such ends up relying more on histrionics than actual history, there's enough going on to make the 8-hour journey mostly worth the effort.
'World Without End' comes with a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that, more often than not, borders on fantastic, but due to a few instances of inconsistency, it fails to receive completely high marks. Mostly, though, the miniseries looks very sharp, and every bit a recent production with all the technological trimmings one might imagine go into a production like this. As much of the town of Kingsbridge was actually physically constructed – then made larger through the use of CGI – the image is able to focus on the actors in a real environment, which certainly makes all the difference. As such, exteriors are typically bright and full of vibrant colors that capture the lush forests surrounding the market town, as well as when the story moves into France and briefly beyond. Interiors and night shots look very good; detail remains high, for the most part, in dimly lit scenes, as shadow delineation is smooth and evenly presented.
Fine detail is good but not great, managing to capture the smaller details of the characters' sometimes elaborate costumes and the scenery. It does, however occasionally miss features on the actors' faces, which would have added another layer of depth to the image quality. That being said, though, contrast remains high throughout with black levels strong and consistent while whites – even in the stark light of day – never look overblown or too hot.
On the downside, in addition to the sometimes inconsistent detail, there are a few scenes where such an extreme amount of grain is present and one begins to wonder if they were shot at the last minute on someone's handheld camcorder. The difference in quality is really quite noticeable and manages to bring the scene in question to a grinding halt. Furthermore, soft focus tends to be an issue in certain scenes, though it is far less jarring than the aforementioned issue of grain.
All in all, though, for an 8-hour miniseries, 'World Without End' looks great when the image is performing at its best, so despite the occasional misfires, the overall verdict is that it's quite good.
As this is more of a drama with romantic undertones, there isn't as much need for a bombastic audio mix the likes of, say, 'The Lord of the Rings' or 'Game of Thrones' would employ – though there is enough clashing of swords to make 'World Without End' a compelling listening experience for the home theater enthusiast. As such, the Blu-ray has been given a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that sounds just as good as any Hollywood blockbuster.
Dialogue is clear throughout, whether the characters are speaking close to one another, or over the din of battle. Mostly, the dialogue can be heard through the center and front speakers, but there are plenty of instances where the rear channels come into play for the purpose of imaging and directionality. It's sound effects, however, that benefit most from the surround sound, and this series is loaded with them. Ambient, atmospheric noises like running water, trees blowing in the breeze, or the sound of peasants toiling over rocky soil are all present here and wonderfully recreated in the audio mix.
Normally, epics like this have an equally large score, and 'World Without End' is no exception. The music by Mychael Danna is effective without being overbearing, and that shows primarily in how it is distributed in the mix. Typically coupled with dialogue and larger sound effects through the front channels, the score will sometimes seep into the rear channels for a more immersive experience. As with the sound effects, however, the score is balanced well and never overwhelms the actors' dialogue.
For such a large miniseries, one would think that more supplemental material would be made available. Instead, 'World Without End' settles for a rather rudimentary "making of" doc that features the kind of fluffy explanations of how the project attracted actors, and glossy compliments to the source material most audiences have come to expect from featurettes like this. While the doc doesn't delve as deeply as it could into the making of the miniseries, or the actual history behind it, there are some worthwhile nuggets of information here that make it watchable.
Historical fiction can be something of a tricky device. 'World Without End' is clearly attempting to illustrate the ignorance of a time when fear and superstition ruled with an iron fist, and, in the end, the only way out of it was through some kind of great upheaval – which, ironically enough, was brought about not by mankind's advancement, but through its near annihilation. Much of what is depicted here is too melodramatic and too on the nose to be taken as seriously as the writers and filmmakers would undoubtedly like. It's not going to suit everyone's tastes, but for those who enjoyed 'The Pillars of the Earth,' or are simply a sucker for a long, medieval romance, this lengthy miniseries will serve you well. As an added incentive, the miniseries is presented with a good looking – if sometimes inconsistent – image with impressive sound. Not a must own, but definitely worth a look.