If ever there was a story tailor-made for Lifetime, which once billed itself as “television for women,” it would be “The Red Tent,” Newton author Anita Diamant’s best-selling reimagination of the biblical tale of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob.
Airing in two parts Sunday and Monday night at 9 p.m., Lifetime’s adaptation deserves credit for telling stories about, and from the perspective of, women — a concept sometimes foreign to Hollywood — and retaining Diamant’s proto-feminist polish of Dinah, a woman who had no voice herself in the Bible.
Instead of being portrayed as a victim of a rape to be avenged, the Dinah of “The Red Tent” is strong-willed, finds true love, has her heart and spirit broken, then rises again triumphant in her wisdom, self-possession, and ability to forgive.
If it could be judged merely on the merits of its aspirations, “The Red Tent” would get two “you-go-girl!” snaps up. Unfortunately, how the miniseries turns those aspirations into drama leaves much to be desired over its four hours, stranding the viewer in a place as dry and desolate — and sometimes as confusing — as the desert inhabited by its characters.
We are introduced to Dinah (Rebecca Ferguson, “The White Queen”) via voice-over, annoyed that her tale is but a footnote to the more widely told stories of the men in her family, including Jacob (Iain Glen, “Game of Thrones”) and brother Joseph, he of the amazing Technicolor dreamcoat. Dinah is here to tell the stories of the women — mother Leah (Minnie Driver, “About a Boy”) and her three aunts, Jacob’s other wives, including Rachel (Morena Baccarin, “Homeland”) — who gathered in the red tent to celebrate the cycles of life, from first menstruation to childbirth, and to partake in ancient rituals, storytelling, and support.
One of the film’s most conspicuous problems has to do with casting. Almost all of the main characters are light-skinned or white. (Apparently, there was some rocking sunscreen in ancient Mesopotamia.) These are nomadic desert people, yet only two of the sisters are dark-skinned — the fruit of a slave-master liaison — and have much smaller roles.
Compounding the issue, the vengeful brothers and scheming Egyptian queen who end up being the hotheaded villains of the piece are darker-skinned and more hirsute.
And even though they’ve all grown up together in a tiny village herding sheep, their accents suggest otherwise. Glen, Driver, Ferguson, and others could have just stepped out of different quarters at Downton Abbey, Baccarin’s accent is somewhere back in her “Homeland,” and Debra Winger, who shows up briefly as Jacob’s fierce mama, Rebecca (despite being only six years older than Glen in real life) appears to have picked up that strange hybrid accent Madonna sported during her British phase.
Also remarkable is the high percentage of men with a keen interest in the sexual satisfaction of their (multiple and sometimes related) wives, with several interludes of basic-cable- level, soft-focus erotica.
While there’s not a lot of action in “The Red Tent” and some of the dialogue is stiff, there are no slouches in the cast and everyone does his or her best to enliven the material. Glen in particular does a good job balancing several modes: sensitive but randy shepherd with four wives, tormented brother betrayer, and thundering old-school patriarch. Ferguson is also top-notch as the woman out of time, defiantly declaring she will marry for love and owning her single-gal-in-the-city (of Thebes) sass, standing up to authority, and midwifing like it’s her business (it is!), and business is good.
Ultimately though, this “Red Tent” is pitched somewhere between swords-and-sandals drama and romance novel fantasy. It ends up in a place much more arid and colorless.