A very interesting story, with some very strong acting, but it went overly long. I think it could have been cut down from four to three parts easily.
The main reason I had for watching this mini-series was Colm Meaney. He is such a great actor, that he could hold any movie all by himself -indeed he has. Not only that, but he has held up what could have been the
worst episodes of Deep Space Nine, also, and turned them into very solid outings, just because of the quality of acting. Here, he could also do that, though he doesn't need to.
Meaney is joined by two extremely gifted actresses, who fall into their parts so easily, they could have been transported from the early 1800s. Their characters evolve over the 25 years that the story follows, but they are always the same at their core. Mary is continually suspicious, never relying on anybody but herself, and Lavinia is strong but lonely, secretly wishing she was back in England serving that rich family she left behind, in their big beautiful house. One is made for the frontier, the other is not.
The other characters are ancillary, except in how they pertain to the lives of Mary and Lavinia. The children grow up and become adults, some getting married, others not living long enough to do so. Life is hard at Cape Random, a small fishing outpost in Newfoundland. The Cape was never designed to be a permanent settlement, so when three families arrive at different times, Thomas (Meaney) is very gruff with them, telling them they cannot stay. But they do stay, and everybody grows very close.
By the end, Mary has adapted (though she doesn't seem to age much
appearance-wise), growing into the leader of the community, and solving problems so that they can continue with their lives. She is very realistic, not very religious, but still retains the culture of society, so that she agrees to marry Ned after they have slept together, and when she is older, she insists that her daughter Fanny be married after she is found to be with child. But because she never trusted anybody, she seems to have no conscience, and is often rude and brash, speaks her mind, and doesn't keep to her own business. She has no respect towards other people, and people don't like her much, either.
Lavinia, however, never adapted. She never once, as far as we see, handled the fish, never wanted to do any work when the
houses were being constructed. She only wanted to keep with her upbringing, pass on her knowledge, and so she took care of the children, bringing them an education. She didn't seem to care about the concerns of the others, always barging in on the community meetings without so much as an "excuse me" and making demands, storming away afterwards, as if she didn't belong at those meetings. She grew ever more lonely, as her family either died away or left for St John's. She actually seemed to fade. Strangely enough, I liked Lavinia much more than I did Mary, even though Mary pulled more than her own weight around the community.
The four parts of this mini-series were pretty close to being separate from each other, within the continuity that is their life at Cape Random.
The first part is obviously the introduction. It shows how everybody ended up at Cape Random. Ned, Lavinia and their family was kicked out of England for theft. They were sent across the Atlantic in what seemed to be far too small a ship to cross that ocean. Ned's wife gives birth on the trip, however, so they stop at Cape Random for her to rest. Too bad only two ships arrive there a year! The baby is stillborn, being born in such conditions, and the mother only lasts a few weeks afterwards, dying on land.
From Ireland, Mary was sold to a woman who needed a servant for their new home in Newfoundland. However, after her husband takes to Mary, and the wife notices the affections he is trying to give their housekeeper, she is let loose. She takes up with a thief, who ends up killing the man, and getting Mary pregnant. He sends her off on a ship he promises is bound for England, but instead takes her to Cape Random. She is forced to fend off sailors for much of the journey, until she reaches that kindly port.
Most of the rest of the first part deal with how the two families begin to mesh with the existing Vincent's, and
with Thomas, who were already there, working as fishermen. It is a struggle, but I think they find fulfillment, for the most part. Ned takes a liking to this frontier, and plans to build a house. Lavinia keeps the children busy, not as usual fishermen's children, but as she no doubt saw the English children raised, with fun games, instead of learning how to live off the land. The others continue to fish, preparing it for their employer in St. John's.
The second part of the mini-series is much slower in pace. Not much actually happens, but it could be termed "Mary's search for a husband", because for the first half, she tries to get hardworking Thomas into her bed, much to his shame. But instead, she gets widowed Ned, whom she is probably more satisfied with. Between commercials, the families continue to grow, until suddenly Mary and Ned's house is filled nearly to the brim with children! Frank and his wife move in from another port, looking to join in on the frontier life. But Frank's wife is not fit for this kind of isolation, and she becomes mentally unstable. Franks turns to Annie Vincent instead, for she is young, beautiful, and she has fallen in love with him. By the fourth part, Frank's wife will surprise us by taking up the fishing net on a bountiful day, but will also light herself a pyre on the water from one of their fishing boats.
Also in the second part, which continues long into part three, Mary proves how valuable she is, even though people still don't like her much. She even sows a finger back on a little boy. But there are many deaths in this little community, because of the time period they live in. I know that many children didn't live to become adults, and that many adults met untimely deaths, especially in this kind of community, far from anywhere. When cholera strikes, many of the children die, as do several adults. Mary tends to them all, and doesn't ever get sick. She loses a child, however, and blames herself for taking care of others when she could have possibly saved him.
Part three was very engaging, as so many things started to happen. I wondered if this was perhaps the beginning of the end of Cape Random. After Thomas sees Fanny making love to a man whom he believes is her step-father Ned, he goes into a silent rampage, seething inside, creating extreme tension whenever he is around, even when Lavinia comes knocking. They have feelings for each other, but Thomas has several secrets that he cannot share. When Ned confronts him, the younger man is killed when he hits his head on a fishing boat after a scuffle. Thomas feels terrible, especially after he confronts a pregnant Fanny, and finds out that the father is not Ned, but an Indian native. Knowing that the community would kill the native boy, Thomas claims the child as his own, shocking the others and breaking Lavinia's heart.
The final part of the mini-series sees everything wrapped up, perhaps in too neat a package. Though they are living together, Thomas and Fanny are not living as husband and wife. Her native lover comes looking for her one day, and is killed. After going through premature labor because of the tragedy, Fanny also dies, though her son survives. I wish we could have seen more of the outcome from the sudden knowledge
among the community that Thomas was not in fact the father. Instead, he leaves for St. John's. Before going, he reveals his secrets to Lavinia, his love. It turns out he is a Catholic priest! That is more of a shock
even than his other secret, that he killed a man, and had to leave Ireland
because of it. Lavinia is struck again. But after spending long months in St. John's helping to build a cathedral to his Bishop, often at the expense of the common folk, he grows disillusioned. Two boys from Cape Random are killed while seal hunting for the largest employer in the city, who will do nothing for the families. He can't even get the church to intervene.
So he sets off for Cape Random once more, and asks Lavinia to marry him, renouncing his life as a priest. But the story is not over yet, because the new owner of the fisheries turns out to be the man who got Mary pregnant so many years ago. He married into a wealthy family and now wants to close down the small fishing ports. It is a good thing that Mary has such a wealth of information on him, and manages to blackmail them out of a good sum of money, I think. They give the entire community of Cape Random to Mary as her own land! I found while watching it that the fourth part had too many flashbacks to earlier sequences. I thought perhaps the producers ran out of story to tell. But we don't even get to see the wedding, or evidence of a wedding for Thomas and Lavinia. Surely they could have given up some of that time, instead of just telling us that "we will be married, but we will wait." Wait for what? Given that they are dutiful Christians (which we see throughout the series), they should be married before they start sleeping with each other, shouldn't they? When Thomas says he's left the church, he means the priesthood, not being a Christian.
After dumping cold water over Ned and Mary in the first part, I thought
Lavinia would have a different attitude. Perhaps she's gone soft after
all those years.
I certainly have a new appreciation for what it takes to build a town from nothing. The hard work is not all of it, either. It takes a lot of effort to bring the people together and keep them that way. Take Mary, for instance. When she arrived, there wasn't enough to sustain everybody, so she is told in no uncertain terms that she is not welcome. However, when she confronts Thomas about letting Frank stay, years later, she doesn't realize how much that community has changed. I think this is why Part II seemed to be a little slow. It focused on Mary not fitting in, showing example after example, which seemed to get repetitious.
I was amazed at how explicit the sex scenes were in this network
film. The motions make it unmistakable what is happening, on more than
one account. It doesn't bother me, but I wonder just how risqué the
public networks have to be these days...
I believe this series could have been done in three parts instead of four. I know people who didn't watch it because they didn't want to dedicate eight hours to it. I understand. Without a lot of the flashbacks in the last part, and cutting some of the scenery shots, which are nice, but there were a lot of them, and cutting down a little bit the false conflict between Mary and the
others early on, it could have been done. Real conflict is the way it was handled between Thomas and Ned, or Thomas and Mary, as well -for she doesn't trust him, never has and never will.
But it was still quite enjoyable, and the scenery, since we had it, was beautiful. The acting, from Mary (who was created as an unlikable character until near the end), and Lavinia (who was likable even though she never really did anything, and was constantly waiting for her old lifestyle to come back) to especially Thomas, was superb. They made the characters real.