It can get awfully hot in the desert, and I’m not just talking temperature. In CBS’s “The Dovekeepers,” a retelling of the story of Jewish rebels who took refuge from the Romans in Herod’s old fortress of Masada, secret lovers writhe together passionately, adulterers pledge eternal love beside raging fires, and cries of romantic jealousy reverberate. It’s a 1st-century nerve center of melodrama up there on the sun-dried cliffs, with subtlety, like the Romans, unable to break through those massive stone walls.
Yes, this two-part miniseries based on Alice Hoffman’s 2011 novel bears the marks of too many wooden TV efforts to tell great religious stories. It displays an abundance of sincerity, too-perfect costuming, and soap opera faces and a shortage of real grunge, nuance, and complexity. It seems to be set within the cover illustration of a Harlequin historical romance novel, where the men’s long hair is always flowing perfectly. Swollen lines such as, “I would have died a hundred times to have had your love,” uttered in Part 2, are the painful norm, the script’s default epic language.
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But beyond the expected cheese factor (did you see National Geographic’s “Killing Jesus” on Sunday? Holy Gorgonzola), “The Dovekeepers” is a missed opportunity to deliver a compelling modern interpretation of the famous mass suicide. Hoffman set up a new perspective in her ambitious novel, by focusing on the women in the Masada community of over 900 people and making four of them the storytellers. And the movie follows that blueprint, to some extent, as two fictionalized women survivors, Shirah (Cote de Pablo) and Yael (Rachael Brosnahan), describe what happened in Masada to Flavius Josephus (Sam Neill), the real-life historian who wrote the first account of the siege. The miniseries, written by Ann Peacock, is essentially a succession of flashbacks.
But the progress of the storytelling in the miniseries quickly becomes awkward and forced, as “The Dovekeepers” keeps returning to Josephus interrogating Shirah and Yael about the disaster. These regular disruptions to the action in Masada compromise the buildup to the final scenes, when the community takes its fate into its own hands. While they remind us that history is being filtered through the historian and his biases, they undo what little tension the movie has established back in the settlement. And the confrontational questions and comments Josephus throws at the two women — “Masada was an ember that could ignite the flames of rebellion in other places; it had to be crushed” — often seem like a narrative cheat, to provide viewers with background and fill in facts that could not be fit into the flashbacks.
The acting is satisfactory, in that some of the leading actors clearly understand their characters’ motivations. In TV movies involving religious history and mysterious events, that is often not the case. De Pablo stands out as Shirah, the lover of Jewish leader Eleazar Ben Ya’ir (Mido Hamada) who lives by her own sexual mores and who exudes power. She delivers a distinct character, unlike others in the cast, particularly the men, who blur into one grunting, muscle-bound, toga-wearing hero. Brosnahan, too, manages to convey something of Yael’s inner strength, after growing up rejected by her father because her mother died giving birth to her. As Shirah’s warrior daughter, Aziza, who poses as a man for a while, Kathryn Prescott is less fortunate; her plot line is rushed and inadequately told.
The most disappointing thing about “The Dovekeepers,” which is executive produced by faith-based TV heavyweights Mark Burnett and Roma Downey and premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m., is that, after the accumulation of vignettes, the final scenes ought to be riveting. We ought to understand why these people chose to die, how they did it, how they felt in those last moments. We ought to have an intimate knowledge of their complicated states of mind, and an emotional sense of them too. Time should seem to stop for a bit. Instead, the climax is a hurried, underplayed, half-realized. When the Romans finally succeed, the miniseries has failed.