Stick through the uneven first half of “The Red Tent” and you will be rewarded with a livelier conclusion that channels vintage miniseries in the best way: It’s epic! Full of costumed drama and family intrigue! Stars! Lots of swelling music!
The Lifetime mini has a more femme-friendly sensibility than its forebears, however: Women drive the narrative, and there are plenty of men’s abs — and derrieres — on display. “The Red Tent” manages to address serious issues — rape, tribal rivalries and brutal subjugation of women — while somehow managing to maintain a romantic patina. It verges on hokeyness but never completely topples in that direction.
Somehow, it all works. And with its biblical roots, it is well positioned for the holiday season.
The two-part miniseries, executive produced by Paula Wagner, is based on Anita Diamant’s bestselling novel of the same name. It tells the story of Dinah, brother to Joseph of the amazing coat, and a minor character in the Bible; Minnie Driver, Debra Winger and Rebecca Ferguson (“The White King”) are among the stars.
The first half of the miniseries lays out a lot of exposition, and it can get confusing. Some of this is due to the epic nature of the story, which spans generations of a complicated family, and tribal warfare from long ago. There are several sets of actors playing characters at various ages, and while “The Red Tent” does its best to help the viewer follow along, it can get tricky.
It doesn’t help that Dinah (Ferguson) had four mothers, and two of them are sisters.
“The Red Tent” starts with Dinah’s voiceover explanation of that titular tent, where the four wives resided during menstruation, and developed strong bonds. Then she launches into the story of how her parents met.
Her father Jacob (Will Payne as a younger man, then Iain Glen) stumbled into her family’s land seeking work from his uncle, Dinah’s grandfather, and is immediately smitten with beautiful Rachel (Holly Earl as a teenager/”Homeland’s” Morena Baccarin as an adult); curly-haired sister Leah (played by Gabrielle Dempsey as a young woman and then Driver) pines for him.
The two sisters become their cousin’s wife due to a ruse-turned-power play. Jacob also demands two of his uncle’s slaves as wives as well.
See what I mean about confusing?
The sister wives then proceed to deliver a bunch of kids. Dinah, borne to Leah, is his only daughter, while Joseph (Will Tudor) is Rachel’s only child. They are the favored children, and this causes all sorts of toxic resentment by the other sons.
This is where the mini bogs down a bit. Luckily, things pick up when we meet Debra Winger as Jacob’s imposing mother.
Then Dinah falls in love and causes an irreparable divide between the two tribes. A wrenching bloodbath, plotted by her brothers, sets the stage for a more eventful second half.
Dinah is left in the cold, and we later learn, with child. In a far more brutal time for women, she has little recourse. Even her own father doesn’t back her up.
“What do you expect me to do,” her father asks. “They are my sons.”
“And I am only your daughter,” she bitterly replies.
Things only get worse: Dinah’s family takes her child, and she must tend to him as a slave without revealing she’s his mother. In her anguish, she turns her back on her midwife skills, learned from Rachel. Eventually, however, she meets up with a hunky man and she takes up midwifery again. She makes peace with her life, drawing on the wisdom of her mothers to help other women. Before the mini is over, she had reunited with some of her long-lost loved ones.
For a story based on a biblical figure, “The Red Tent” treads lightly on religion. It glosses over Jacob’s polygamy, and Dinah’s own faltering faith. Joseph, Dinah points out, has more to help get him through his own trying experiences.
“The Red Tent,” adapted by Anne Meredith and Elizabeth Chandler, instead concentrates on the womanly bonds formed between the wives. Ferguson’s voiceover hits the holiday season sweet spot: Just sentimental enough. Frankly decorous sex scenes and brutal conditions for men and women help save “The Red Tent” from becoming overly cloying. It’s got just enough red blood pulsing through it to avoid that.
The production itself seems stagey at times. And although the exposition mostly pays off in the second half, it can be confusing and slow going for stretches. The costumes look like that – outfits rather than lived-in garments.
Still, for all that, “The Red Tent” is an enjoyably old-school miniseries with an updated feminine twist. Watch it all and you’ll see why Minnie Driver and Debra Winger signed on for the ride.
“The Red Tent” debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.