'The Red Tent': TV Review
An old Bible story told from a new, female perspective
The Red Tent, a two-night miniseries on Lifetime, based on Anita Diamant's best selling 1997 novel, puts a Biblical footnote of a character, Dinah (Rebecca Ferguson) front and center. In Genesis, Dinah was Jacob's (Iain Glen) only daughter, who was sexually violated by a Canaanite man claiming to love her, and wanting to make her his wife. Her brothers (the same ones who later sold Joseph -- of the technicolor dream coat -- into slavery) then brutally avenged the attack, but the bloodshed only caused more pain. Dinah, throughout it all, remained a mute figure.
The Rent Tent gives Dinah her say. In this telling, there is no rape, only a love story of Romeo and Juliet-esque proportions. There are still the brutal murders, but the reasoning behind them is not as clear without the assault. Before any of that, though, The Red Tent firmly establishes itself as a story primarily of female strength and bonding. Jacob's wives Leah (Minnie Driver), Rachel (Morena Baccarin), and their servants (Vinette Robinson, Agni Scott), as well as Dinah, spend most of their time together in that title tent, which is set aside for menstruating women (they must all be synced up). It's part spa, part Lilith Fair.
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The Red Tent's first and second episodes are very different, with the latter slowing down and closing in specifically in Dinah's self-imposed exile to Egypt, as she reinvents herself several times. Just as she was in The White Queen (which, early on, bares some interesting similarities to Dinah's story) Ferguson is a luminous presence who easily carries the story, making it compelling throughout.
The women-centric telling (particularly of the determined and resourceful Dinah) makes sense airing on Lifetime, although despite it being a Biblical tale, God is nowhere to be found. As the narrator, Dinah even refers to Rachel's miracle birth as "by fate or by the irony of the gods," firmly uninterested in the nuances of the Almighty. There are idols and prayers to a mother goddess, but though it takes its characters from the Old Testament, nothing about the miniseries' faith (or lack thereof) links up with Judeo-Christian beliefs. This is, curiously, a tale about the schemes of man, and not the hand of God as described in scripture.
The Red Tent becomes particularly problematic, though, in the casting of white actors exclusively in prominent and positive roles (which also reinforces the idea, especially accent-wise, that heroes are English, and everyone else is indistinguishably foreign). The most egregious example is of blonde-haired, blue-eyed and fair-skinned Joseph (Will Tudor), who stands in stark contrast to his brown, scheming brothers Simon (Saif Al-Warith) and Levi (Pedro Lloyd Gardiner). Giving them, or any of the other ten brothers, any kind of story of their own would have evened the narrative out more, but then again, The Red Tent is all about girl power (though it does sparingly, and without satisfaction, weave a version of the more popular and well-known story of Joseph in with Dinah's).
From a secular perspective, The Red Tent may not exactly be an epic, but it's an engaging and very well cast story of the triumph and resilience of the female spirit. (Debra Winger also appears, briefly as Dinah's frightening grandmother Rebekah). Dinah grows and learns and changes a great deal throughout the series' four hours, and her journey of romance, murder, sorrow, and more romance is well-handled visually, thanks to Roger Young (who also directed the overlooked Barabbas).
Though The Red Tent's ties to Genesis are tenuous, even a little gimmicky, since it has no desire to explore faith in any way (the story isn't beholden to its Biblical characters except by name, meaning it could easily have stood as a engaging narrative all on its own, without the connection), it is at times charming and different, and a good fit for Lifetime. It just falls short of a higher calling.