WORLD WITHOUT END – Blu-ray review

“World without End” was an eight-episode miniseries based on the novel by Ken Follett and intended as a sequel to the 2010 miniseries “The Pillars of the Earth.” But this sequel, which aired in 2012, is set 150 years after the action of “Pillars” as it zooms in on the English village of Kingsbridge at the time of the great plague and the start of the Hundred Years’ War.

The production values are excellent and “World without End” is the kind of show that can easily hook fans of historical dramas. The acting is also decent, and the characters the kind that fascinate.

“World” gets off to a fast start, with King Edward II overthrown by an army led by Queen Isabella (Aure Atika), his French wife. Like the power-hungry wives in “I, Claudius,” she installs her son (Blake Ritson) as the new king and rules behind the scenes.

To balance the blackness there are two brothers who happen to witness an act of treachery. Ralph and Merthin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Tom Weston-Jones) bring the wounded knight Sir Thomas Langley (Ben Chaplin) to town, where he seeks refuge in the church. He has a secret that could topple the Queen, and so of course she’s on him like static electricity, which was the only electricity around during the 1300s. There was also no middle class at the time—tradesmen, really, coming the closest to a mid-level existence. Most were peasants living in poverty or lords and ladies not grateful enough to have been born with a whole set of silverware in their mouths.

Yet, on “World without End,” there seems to be a stronger middle class, and people of lower stations wear clothing that looks fresh off the rack. I mean, people didn’t wash their clothes as often back then, and during the Black Plague life was pretty grungy. “World without End” looks too pristine at times, with everything just a little too glossy and too many threads exactly in place. Helicopter shots—which we usually don’t see in miniseries like this—also remind you of contemporary times and jar you, momentarily, out of the time period.

Then again, Follett is more interested in fiction than in history. History is just the backdrop for what plays out like a medieval soap opera. There isn’t a single character who doesn’t experience (or commit) some sort of sordid action, and at times it’s tough to keep who’s screwing who and why straight. And while I can believe that a sadistic nobleman would have two brothers fight to see who would become his squire (and basically get a foot in the door to a better life), not all of the shenanigans seem plausible, given the time period. The intrigue is here, and on a number of levels—royalty, monks, revolutionaries, peasants—but soap opera conventions, rather than historical research, drive the narratives.

Presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, “World without End” comes to 50GB discs (2) via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode that presents no problems whatsoever. There are no compression issues that I noticed. The picture is as glossy as the best Blu-rays—though perhaps a little more filmic grain might have helped the illusion of antiquity. Colors are bright and bold, detail is incredible in the middle distance and backgrounds as well as in close-ups, and those helicopter shots provide a striking look at the town and its surroundings.

The featured audio is an English or French DTS-HD MA 5.1, with an Audio Descriptive Track in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles iln English, English SDH, Arabic, French, and Hindi. Like the video, it’s flawless enough to where I can’t really say anything bad about it. There’s sufficient ambient sounds coming out of the rear speakers, dialogue is clear, and there’s a richness of tone that smacks of high production values.

“The Making of Ken Follett’s World Without End” is the only bonus feature, and the 25-minute extra looks at all facets of production—including adapting it from the novel, choosing which characters to highlight, deciding on locations, set and art decoration, costumes, and technical challenges.

Bottom line:
“World without End” is like its peasants: a little too nicely dressed and freshly scrubbed. But the situations and characters will absolutely hook fans of historical miniseries.