“Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” is a sprawling, exuberant, four-hour miniseries that arrives like a bountiful harvest on the TV-movie landscape. The experience is virtually akin to curling up with a fat, memorable novel that you hate to see come to an end.
Co-starring Donald Sutherland, Diane Lane and Anne Bancroft in multilayered roles mined from the rich ore of fiction (in this case a best-selling first novel by Allan Gurganus), the tale spans 130 years, from the Civil War to the present, with the focus on deceptive Southern gentility in turn-of-the-century America.
In many ways, the production, compellingly directed by Ken Cameron from a pungent teleplay by Joyce Eliason, is a kind of American belle epoque. Here is a look at the South that is not so much Faulknerian and Gothic as it is darkly comic.
Deftly anchoring the breadth of the piece is a framing device that chronicles events through the eyes of the titular matriarch Lucy Marsden (with Lane playing the younger Lucy and Bancroft the older Lucy).
The sweep back and forth in time is artful and full of surprises, beginning with Lane’s absorbing performance in Sunday’s episode as a rebellious 14-year-old who lives in a big frame house with a veranda. Largely to escape a preening, overbearing mother (Blythe Danner), she marries a 50-year-old war veteran still painfully living the Civil War. The man, Capt. William Marsden, is a larger-than-life figure played to the hilt by Sutherland.
Cicely Tyson, in arguably her finest work, is a mother lode of earthy black patois, enacting a former Marsden slave turned Marsden housekeeper who grows as old as the captain.
A bejeweled moment is Bancroft’s ruminations to the senior citizens around her (including a cameo by E.G. Marshall). “I was so young,” she says, “I thought getting married was like getting a pup at Christmas.”
Later this oldest living Civil War widow reflects that “history ain’t so historical; it’s getting by and hanging on. History’s lunch.”
And this TV movie is a feast.
* “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” airs Sunday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).