Friday, May 14, 2021

Death and Nightingales, on Starz

In 1885, Northern Ireland was a land divided by religion. So is Beth Winters’ house. Her stepfather Billy Winters is a wealthy English Protestant landlord, whereas she is not. Nor was her late mother Catherine, who secretly knew she was already pregnant with Beth when she married the hard-drinking Englishman. The Winters family dynamics have only gotten worse since her death and finally come to a head in creator-director Allan Cubitt’s 3-part Death and Nightingales, which premieres Sunday on Starz.

As a young girl, Winters heard her stepfather angrily disavow her and it hurt—even after he disavowed his disavowal in a more sober moment. Regardless, since her mother died, he treated Beth more like a servant than a daughter, especially when he inappropriately visited her bedroom late at night. She has always deeply resented him, yet their awkward shared history created a sort of dysfunctional bond between them. However, she finally resolves to make a break when she meets the dashing Liam Ward, Winters’ new IRA-supporting tenant.

Despite some mixed emotions, the smitten Winters agrees to slip Old Billy a bromide mickey and empty his safe, so she and Ward may elope and start a new life together. Fatefully, it will all go down on the day of her 23
rd birthday. Of course, this kind of business never goes according to plan.

Evidently, Cubitt rather faithfully adapted Eugene McCabe’s similar-titled novel, but a bit pruning and narrative concentration would not have been amiss. Frankly, the entire first episode is ponderously slow and not especially eventful. The middle hour picks up the pace a bit, while the conclusion delivers some pretty intense, slap-in-the-face drama.

Ann Skelly really delivers down the stretch as the surprisingly resourceful Beth Winters. She has moments that largely redeem the series. Unfortunately, viewers have to slog through a lot of aimless angst and melodrama to get to them. Ordinarily, it would be quite entertaining to watch Matthew Rhys rage and roar as Billy Winters, during the episode one and two, but Cubitt makes him such an unsavory, predatory figure, it is impossible to embrace him as a love-to-hate character.

Although he is prominently billed, Jamie Dornan is absent for long stretches as Ward. He is fine as Ms. Winters’ potential savior, but his on-screen passion with Skelly never really heats up. On the other hand, Valene Kane is perfectly cast as her tragic mother (the resemblance is striking). The great Michael Smiley is also the right kind of colorfully memorable in the relatively brief but pivotal role of mute outcast Dummy McGonnell.

is too sunny and slow to function as a du Maurier-esque romantic thriller and the elements of abuse leave a bitter aftertaste. As a result, it is hard to figure who was the intended audience for Cubitt’s adaptation. Respected for the craftmanship of its period production, but not recommended for its heavy-handed drama, Death and Nightingales debuts this Sunday (5/16) on Starz, several years after its UK and Irish releases.