Strong women in literature are our subject today, with two recent programs now available on home video. First up is The Red Tent, a miniseries that aired on Lifetime in 2014. The two-part, four hour program is based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Anita Diamant and it’s just been released on DVD. The story is Biblically based, taking place during the period of the Book of Genesis. It draws from the story of Jacob, he of the Jacob’s ladder story (not the Rush song, dudes).
Anyone familiar with the Bible stories knows Jacob. He’s one of the pivotal men in the first book of the Bible, as is his son, Joseph, he of the techno-color dream coat. Okay, they don’t call it that, but the favored son does receive a colorful, tastefully woven garment by his father, one that riles his brothers. In one of the most Caucasian cast of Middle Easterners since the days of Cecil B. DeMille, Jacob is portrayed by Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen. He’s one of my favorite actors on GOT, and as with his character in the HBO series, he plays Jacob as a thoughtful, wise man whose every decision seems to be wracked with guilt.
Despite the screen time Jacob receives, his it not the main story of The Red Tent. That would belong to Dinah (Rebecca Ferguson), the only daughter Jacob bore with one of his four wives. Being the only girl in a large family of men, the four wives favored Dinah and taught her the special things that take place in the red tent, a ”women only” place where the ladies went once a month during their time of menstruation. The tent is also where all childbirths take place, and praise was given to the different idols the wives worshiped. Dinah is a fascinating character. Not only is she granted with the strength and wisdom of her mothers, but she is wise and strategic like her father. Even during the worst of times, she maintains a sense of dignity and a sense of morality that is lacking in so many of the people surrounding her, including her own brothers.
Although Dinah’s life is is the focus of The Red Tent, Ferguson gets overshadowed by two of the actors her mothers. Minnie Driver and Morena Baccarin (Homeland, Gotham), who play sisters Leah and Rachel are both such strong actresses that they overtake any scene they’re in. Another powerful actress who makes a brief appearance is the great Debra Winger. She appears as Rebecca, Dinah’s bossy and somewhat cruel grandmother. While it’s nice to see Winger on screen again, I was never convinced that she was from that era.
Then again, not much of this story felt as if it was from another era. Although beautifully shot in Morocco, capturing a flavor of the early days of civilized man, The Red Tent has a modern sensibility to it. From the acting to the wooden dialogue, I never felt like this big production was anything more than just another Lifetime movie of the week. A shame, because Dinah’s story is intriguing and what happens to her is at times exciting, other times tragic, and ultimately inspirational. In other words, it has all of the elements of great drama. The actors (and the viewers) deserve better.
Far more successful at historical drama is Outlander, the Starz fantasy series (Season 1A is now on Blu-ray) based on the series of novels written by Diana Galbadon. Adapted for cable TV by famed executive producer Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek:TNG), Outlander straddles two historical time periods — post World War II and 18th Century Scotland — and does so with assurance. Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, a former nurse for the British Army who is now getting reacquainted with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), who was a part of British Intelligence during the war. They venture to a remote part of Scotland as a second honeymoon, where Frank studies his ancestry and she enjoys researching the plant life of countryside, a new hobby of hers.
They walk through the ruins of an old castle where Frank’s ancestor, ”Black Jack” Randall, a Captain in the Royal Dragoons, once roamed, and dig up family papers with a local priest. One night, Claire and Frank observe a Druid ritual held by the locals of the Scottish village where they’re residing. The next morning, Claire returns to the standing stones where they witnessed the ritual and hears a strange noise. Discovering that it’s coming from one of the ritualistic stones, Claire touches the rock and is rendered unconscious. When she comes to, Claire slowly realizes that she’s been thrust back in time to the year 1743. There she meets the real Black Jack Randall and quickly attains that he’s reprehensible. As he’s about to rape Claire, a Scotsman saves her and takes her back to join his band of Highlanders.
Once amongst the rebel Scots, Claire must keep her wits about her if she’s to stay alive and figure out what happened. She’s presented to Colum McKenzie, the laird of the Castle Leoch, the same castle she and Frank explored in the future. Colum is suspicious that Claire may be an English spy and she must earn his trust by using her medical knowledge to become the tribe healer. She hopes that this will appease them and that she’ll be able to return to the stones and get back to Frank. Meanwhile, Frank, back in 1945, is looking for his beloved wife.
As if Claire didn’t have enough to contend with, she meets Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a strapping young man with his own secrets, and she’s immediately attracted to him. Though these two butt heads, particularly when she’s setting Jamie’s dislocated arm and later treating a gunshot wound, it’s clear that they share a common emotional connection. Could it be they’re destined to be together? Claire struggles to come to terms with it because, well yeah, she’s married, even if it is 200 years in future.
Okay, that’s A LOT of plot to swallow in the first three episodes. However, Moore and his crew slip out the important details in a delicate fashion while focusing on the relationships of Claire and Frank, and then Claire and Jamie. In episode one, it’s a half hour before Claire travels back in time. This is smart, as it allows us to get to know Claire and Frank and to see how much they love each other. They’re soul sick from the war and the honeymoon has given them the chance to become whole again. Just as they’re on the verge of getting back to normal, Claire time travels. Likewise, the love between Claire and Jamie builds slowly. We know it’s going to happen; as viewers we have the luxury of watching it grow.
Balfe plays Claire with such strength (something we see from the opening scene when she takes control of a wounded soldier) that when she has to think on her feet with the Scots, she never loses her cool. The insanity of war prepared her for anything, and she’s using her combat training to keep herself alive in the most remarkable circumstance. Balfe plays the conflict of Claire’s love for Jamie and her devotion to Frank with great nuance.
Heughan exhibits wonderful comic and romantic chemistry with Balfe. Their early scenes are like a screwball romantic comedy, but as they grow closer their on screen love becomes palpable. Menzies gets the joy of playing both a good man in Frank, and the scoundrel Black Jack. The actor’s range in the dual role makes you love Frank and almost find something good in Jack. Almost.
Great fantasy works when the characters are in the forefront and the writers take the time to develop the characters and craft smart dialogue for each and every one. Outlander does just that and should feed the hunger of fantasy fans. The second part of season 1 of Outlander premieres in early April, so there is plenty of time to binge the eight eps on the Blu-ray release before then.
The Red Tent is released by Sony and is available now through Amazon.
Outlander is released through Warner Brothers is available now through Amazon.