Rebecca Ferguson is remarkably good as Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob in Lifetime's two-part adaptation of "The Red Tent," Anita Diamant's feminist revisiting of the Old Testament. And that is no small feat.
Whether you believe it to be truth, fiction or somewhere in between, the Bible is always difficult to adapt to film or television. Though chock-full of plot, it is decidedly short on dialogue, there is little narrative transition and, with a few very notable exceptions, no character development.
This is why so many biblical epics wind up looking so silly. It's not the sandals or the robes or the crazy Egyptian headgear; it's the sight of inevitably modernized characters, often with British accents, stuffed into the sandals and the robes and the crazy Egyptian headgear, involved in highly dramatic scenes that seem to come out of nowhere.
Adapted from Diamant's novel by Elizabeth Chandler and Anne Meredith and directed by Roger Young, "The Red Tent," which premieres Sunday, tells the stories of Jacob and Esau and Joseph of the multicolored coats through the eyes of the women around them. And though it never gets to "cue the locusts" territory, the plot twists required to hit certain biblical touchstones throw up a lot of dust.
Fortunately, Dinah, who faces even more hardship here than in the book, remains dynamic enough to infuse the ancient world with modern spirit without tipping into absurdity. Though she is aided in the first night by a cast that includes Minnie Driver as Leah and Morena Baccarin as Rachel, it's Ferguson's performance that keeps "The Red Tent" from collapsing.
A barely mentioned character in Genesis, where she was known mostly for being raped and sparking slaughter, Dinah is the center of Diamant's feminist reimaging of the clan of Jacob (Iain Glen). Her version of Leah, Rachel and their sister-wives all secretly worship the mother goddess and find communal womb-centric power in the red tent, to which they retired during menses.
And life is pretty good in that red tent. It is quite spacious and fairly plush considering the desert surroundings, with a very comfortable chat area and lots of snacks. Cramps are never mentioned, though childbirth is obviously an issue. Fortunately, Rachel is a gifted midwife, and as the only daughter in a sea of sons, Dinah becomes her assistant.
We are told of the long-running tension between Rachel and Leah — in flashback we see Jacob wooing Rachel, who on the wedding day is replaced by Leah (though for different reasons here than in the Bible) — but everyone gets along remarkably well for a polygamous settlement with limited resources.
Until Jacob abruptly decides to move the fam back to his original lands, certain sons get sick of Joseph being Dad's favorite and Dinah falls in love with a local prince. Then things go from bad to bloody worse; soon you may be wondering whether Dinah has direct lineage to Job.
The action moves to Egypt (lots of crazy headgear), and once again we are reminded that an understanding of herbs, medicine, or midwifery is key to female survival in a hostile environment (see also "Outlander").
Dinah is, after all, the uber character of feminist reclamation fiction: Fiesty, resourceful, intuitive, she suffers under the yoke of the patriarchy but survives through her wits and inner strength. Her beauty doesn't hurt either.
Many parts of "The Red Tent" wander close to parody — Will Tudor's Joseph is a blue-eyed Botticelli in contrast to the Arabic swarthiness of his murderous brothers, Glen's Jacob swings from metrosexual to autocrat amid undeniable "Game of Thrones" music, and there is a Disney-like quality to certain marketplace scenes.
But Ferguson, who stars in "The White Queen," another feminist rewrite, knows exactly what she's doing. Her Dinah is strong and brash, but she is not sassy. Brash may be admirable, but sassy will get you killed in ancient Egypt.
'The Red Tent'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday
Rating: TV-14-SV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for sex and violence)