Rupert Evans stars in the Reelz channel's "World Without End." (Reelz )
Ken Follett's historical novel "World Without End," a less beloved sequel to his much beloved historical novel "The Pillars of the Earth," has become a miniseries — a sequel itself to the 2010 miniseries "Pillars" became. Set in the 14th century in the fictional English market town of Kingsbridge — there is an actual Kingsbridge, but it is not this place — as well as in France and Italy, it follows the matter of the first book by more than a century, but hits some of the same themes in the same ways.
Tom Weston-Jones (the star of "Copper") plays Merthin, descended from the "Pillars" character Thomas the Builder, and quite a little visionary architect himself: He has a star-crossed relationship with Caris (Charlotte Riley), a wool merchant's daughter who is learning about alternative medicine from wise Mattie Wise (Indira Varma). The medicine it is an alternative to is of the sort where, when a wounded knight (Ben Chaplin) arrives in town with an arrow through his arm, the doctor monk who begins to treat him (the always disturbing David Bradley) prescribes "a poultice of dung."
I've seen only the first two of its eight parts, which premiere Wednesday on Reelz Channel — it is an international co-production in which Reelz had no hand — but it seems that it will be broadly faithful to the book, with some rearrangement or reupholstering of the furniture and a wall knocked out here and there. (Like "Pillars," it was adapted by John Pielmeier, and for those who like a spoiler, the miniseries is synopsized in great detail on the Reelz website.) If you were happy with "Pillars," which went its own crazy way at the end, you should be good with this.
The narrative, which has the Hundred Years' War and the Black Death knitted in, serves up a complicated mess of cause and effect, in which the desired effect often seems to dictate the shape of the cause. As in "Pillars," Follett proffers a kind of wildly premature proto-feminism — all the strongest characters, good or evil (though mostly good) are women, who are creatures of the freer, smarter future, while the men (notably save Merthin, who is artsy) cling to their institutions and their bad old ways. Well, it's only true, I suppose.
Even Cynthia Nixon's amoral Petranilla, who will do anything to advance the prospects of her lumpen son, the hot and bothered cleric Godwyn (Rupert Evans), is thinking outside the box.
It's hard to watch any medieval epic nowadays without thinking of Monty Python, and "World Without End" is, to use a Python word, silly much of the time. But in a piece this big and busy, individual elements can stand out as enjoyable even when the whole is less than the sum of those parts.
I liked watching Nixon, Blake Ritson as Edward III and Miranda Richardson as a judicious prioress. Carlo Rota gives an effective, matter-of-fact performance as Caris' father. Peter Firth, as a self-promoting local power broker, soft pedals his part as well. And the built sets and the digital mattes alike do a fine job of taking you to another place.
'World Without End' info
When: 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)