Just following up on yesterday’s enthusiastic plug for Saints and Strangers to pull back a little. I’ll probably watch part two tonight, but I’m indifferent as to whether I see it or not, as what I’ve seen so far isn’t what I would call up to the mark.
The aspect of the show that I am most enthusiastic about (and it’s not insignificant) is the visual. It looks gorgeous, and near as I can tell it looks correct, in terms of sets, props, costumes and so forth. A major thing one seeks from such historical dramas (at least I do) is a kind of immersive virtual reality fantasy. You want to be “taken back”. If it weren’t moving so fast (more on that below) this film would achieve that.
I also approve highly of the casting. This is in some senses an all-star cast, or at least a B list cast of cult favorites, and I’m real happy with the actors and the acting I see on screen. Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell from Mad Men) as William Bradford is not only terrific, he looks terrific (shaggy hair, whiskers and all). He’s even better in this role than he was as Pete, and I hope it bodes well for his future career. Ron Livingston (whom we always call “the guy from Office Space but he’s had a lot of other great roles, but that one is indelible) is Jon Carver, Plymouth’s first Governor — also great. Ray Stevenson (whom I loved as Titus in Rome) is very well cast here as the trouble-making John Billington. The first half hour or 40 minutes virtually belongs to the lovely Anna Camp (fresh in my mind from her recurring role on The Good Wife, which we’ve been binge-watching, but she’s also on True Blood) as the despondent Dorothy Bradford. In a BRILLIANT bit of stunt casting Tatanka Means, son of Native American actor/ activist Russell Means plays the suspicious Hobbomock, advisor to Massasoit. And there are several more like this. It’s very strange that the National Geographic Channel isn’t promoting the involvement of these people more, as it would attract viewers I should think. But they seem to have made the decision to make the Mayflower Passengers “the stars” of this movie, and that’s laudable as far as it goes (we’ll address where they fail on that score below as well).
So it looks great, and is well acted, so what’s the problem? Well, there’s the minor issue of the script. The main problem is that the creators have bitten off way more than they can chew. It’s really an unwinnable war, trying to cram these events into two 2-hour telefilms, with breaks for commercials. As it is, they truncate it in truly harmful ways. The story begins when the Mayflower is halfway across the Atlantic, and so we don’t get ANY important context about who these people are, what they believe, or what they have already gone through prior to the voyage (it was a lot). I’m sorry, but religion is a SLIGHTLY important aspect of this story, don’t you think? The film-makers attempt to tell this slice of the story on the fly, as the “Saints” squabble with the “Strangers” (i.e. the half of the ship’s company who weren’t Pilgrims) throughout their travails. But that doesn’t begin to do it. Who are these people and what did they believe? I still don’t know, halfway through the movie. (Well, of course I know — but not from watching this movie).
Then, on top of that, given the time constraints they try to squish SO much in, and it’s still far from sufficient. There were 102 passengers on the Mayflower and 30 crew. You can’t tell ALL of their stories, although that’s what tv docudramas always try to do. Thus, really, NONE of their stories get told, because every character gets two seconds here, five seconds there. People die but I have no idea who they were because I never met them. I STILL don’t know if William Brewster is in the story at all. He’s somewhat important to the story of the Pilgrims, yah? I noticed most of the other key Mayflower characters in the film last night, but if Brewster was in it, it slipped by me and the character isn’t listed on the IMDB page (many of them aren’t). THEN, on top of that, the script has to accomplish so much of a factual nature that every single line is an on-the-nose, expository factoid designed to communicate with the audience far more than to the other characters. Even so, important events drop out, or are given far too little weight as they whiz by at breakneck pace. I know the story quite well by now, thanks to this book and others, but I swear if you didn’t, I’m not sure what you’d get out of this.
But that’s not all! Because for a story that’s ostensibly about the Mayflower passengers, (in the title, in all of the promotions), the film ALSO takes on the additional story of the Native American leaders. And may I say, seems to care more about them in the bargain, as they are easily the most compelling, focused and interesting characters, as written. There are fewer of them, their motives are clear, and we can easily tell them apart, which is more than you can say for most of the Pilgrim characters. And that’s fine. In fact an ENTIRE movie from that perspective would be cool. But it’s taking too much on for a movie that probably clocks at about three and a half hours.
The bottom line is that the story they want to tell ought to be a mini-series at least. And it would be the coolest! But I’m telling ya, you need a week’s worth of episodes at the minimum: 1) Scrooby, 2) Holland, 3) Mayflower Voyage, 4) Landing, etc etc etc right on through the First Thanksgiving. That television event awaits – -I hope somebody does it! What’s more I hope somebody does it with THIS cast, director (Paul A. Edwards) and design staff!