You know a biblical story is fictional – really, really fictional – when it lets a woman speak for herself.
Lifetime’s miniseries “The Red Tent” is so fictional that it actually focuses on the thoughts and ambitions of ancient women, as opposed to their dowries.
It’s also a great way to get any and all modern men out of the house.
Just explain to them that “red tents” were structures in which the women of biblical villages – their menstrual cycles all synched like Seiko watches, evidently – would barricade themselves to wait out their periods and bask in the all-girl company of their peers.
“The Red Tent” fleshes out the story of Dinah, the only named daughter of Jacob, whose scant mention in Genesis 34 unleashes one of the Bible’s greatest stories. But its epic ambitions make this two-night production feel scattered. It’s a steamy romance! It’s a heartwarming family tale! It’s an action-packed war movie!
It’s a bit of a mess.
The first night’s back story does a nice job of transitioning the tale from the younger, well-cast actors in the multigenerational tale to its stars, faces changing as a scarf is raised or a back is turned. Don’t remember the details of Jacob’s family tree? Don’t worry, this work lays it out fairly easily, from Jacob’s four wives all the way down to Joseph, the favored son in a coat of many colors.
Rebecca Ferguson (“The White Queen”) stars as Dinah, with Minnie Driver, Debra Winger and Morena Baccarin (“Homeland,” “Firefly”) as Old Testament all-stars Leah, Rachel and Rebekah, respectively. All of their performances are classy, emotional affairs, even if Debra Winger is forced to say, “You speak very boldly for someone so young,” the womanly equivalent of “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“The Red Tent” begins as a love triangle, with an exiled Jacob falling for two sisters. Eventually, he gets to marry them both, and makes his extended family prosperous. As patriarch, Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont of “Game of Thrones”) has found another role that makes him the savior of pretty young girls.
This part of the story is relatively quiet, even when Jacob discovers and destroys the ladies’ earth-goddess sculptures. But some of Jacob’s sons are glowering, petty malcontents, especially Simon and Levi.
We meet half-siblings Dinah, a willful young lady with a giving heart, and Joseph, who can interpret dreams. The extended family of women inside the red tent teaches Dinah about midwifery, ancestral prayers and what it means to fall in love with a man.
“I won’t share him,” Dinah declares to her aunt Rachel. “The man I marry will love only me.”
The conflict picks up when Dinah and Rachel are called into the city to deliver a child, and after the screaming is over, Dinah meets just that man. He’s a prince of the city, and those who don’t remember Sunday School will be lulled for a while into hoping for their happiness, even if this part of the script feels like a “Star Wars” romance, with plenty of syrupy dialogue and defiance of consequences.
Jacob and Leah are understandably peeved when they get the news that Dinah’s gotten married in the city. When Dinah’s male relatives realize she’s slept with her prince, well, the screaming begins again.
In a bitter twist on the victim-shaming today’s rape survivors deal with, Dinah’s brothers won’t take her word for it that she actually consented. In their eyes, her body was never hers to give. Simon and Levi’s revenge sets up the last half of “The Red Tent” into a pendulum of agony and redemption for Dinah, who is eventually forced to take her midwife skills and strike out on her own.
For such a woman-centric, I-will-survive story, there’s relatively little feminist musing in “The Red Tent,” though Ferguson delivers one memorable freak-out on her father, scooping up dust in her bloody hands and crying, “I am property!”
Also noticeably absent is the God of the Old Testament. No storm clouds open, no seas part, no one turns into a pillar of salt. You could almost forget that “The Red Tent” is a Bible story, if it didn’t honor the Hollywood tradition of putting white people in the starring roles among the minority extras hired to populate Canaan and Egypt.
What happens as a result of that boneheaded casting is that that Ferguson, whose fair skin and freckles blaze under the desert sun, is first an exotic target of lust, then a victim of violence, then a revered medicine woman, all at the hands of darker-skinned men. It also means that Joseph is the only redhead among the slaves of Egypt before he rises up to rule them.
If that doesn’t bother you, you may have a bright future in Hollywood. Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which hits theaters Friday, retains the mindset that once put a Cleopatra wig on Liz Taylor. Australian actor Joel Edgerton as Ramses II. Christian Bale as Moses. Aaron Paul as Joshua. But the slaves, thieves and assassins are black.
“The Red Tent” is an enjoyable tale of one woman’s survival, and maybe it’s unfair to expect a cable miniseries to draw viewers with unknown actors who look just like their biblical counterparts might have. Between the issues of race, tribalism, rape and consent, “The Red Tent” covers more ground than expected.
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