It’s finally spring! The flowers are in bloom, birds are singing, and love might be in the air. If you want to temper that vibe instantly, then Starz’s Death and Nightingales is right up your alley.
Writer/director Allan Cubitt’s (The Fall) limited series adaptation of Eugene McCabe’s 1992 novel of the same name retains all the misery of great Irish literature and gives it to us pure in this tale of woe that take places over 24-hours.
In Ulster, Ireland in July of 1885, it’s the 23rd birthday of Elizabeth “Beth” Winters (Ann Skelly). She’s the living embodiment of the trouble brewing in an as-of-yet undivided Ireland. Beth is the daughter of a now deceased Catholic mother, and the step-daughter of Protestant landowner, Billy Winters (Matthew Rhys); a girl caught between two increasingly caustic dogmas fighting for the soul of her country.
As the rift between Catholics and Protestants gets progressively deadlier with bombings in London, the Irish locals are also making their moves against one another, accruing information on the “other side” via strategic gossip and sometimes even bolder blackmail schemes.
One of the workers on Winters’ land is Liam Ward (Jamie Dornan), a Catholic. Practically the definition of an Irish himbo, Liam catches the eye of good-girl Beth who knows that her fascination with this strapping lad is nudging her towards the precipice of her own major change. A beautiful and head-strong young woman in her own right, she’s looking to Liam to help her escape the increasingly uncomfortable and suffocating love of her step-father. As the hard-drinking pillar of the community, Billy has no fealty to anyone, except the memory of Beth’s mother, Catherine, and Beth herself. And here’s where the major complications come: It’s been years since Catherine’s death but Billy continues to lament the loss with equal parts sorrow and fury. He drowns his agony nightly in booze, he gets handsy with Beth, and then conveniently forgets it all the next morning.
But Beth has smarts, a pragmatic approach to existing well on the farm, and a plan to escape. Billy showed her years ago his small fortune in gold hidden inside his home safe, and it becomes the motivating factor in a plan that Beth and Liam concoct to start a new life together.
Without spoiling those details, it’s fair to say that Death and Nightingales is no Outlander. While the latter also has plenty of tragedy, the attractive fantasy of Claire and Jamie Fraser’s epic romance is a frequent respite for the audience. In contrast, Beth and Liam aren’t presented with all-encompassing passion. In fact, while it’s clear Beth is openly thirsty for Liam—and acts on it—she makes it just as clear she is uncertain about loving the guy; he’s more of an attractive avenue to get away from Billy’s drunken paws. It’s that sobering reality that creates a persistent pall across all three parts of the series, which makes all of it a bit of a slog.
On the positive side, Cubitt has constructed an attractive backdrop in which to stage Death and Nightingales. Shot in the fields and hills of Northern Ireland, the series is beautiful and appropriately lyrical. And composers Gerry Diver and David Holmes have created a lush, authentically Irish score that brings a lot of life to the series.
Praise also goes to the performances which are all strong, especially Skelly who is ably playing a steely and self-possessed Beth. She comes across as her mother’s daughter, with liberal dashes of Billy’s cunning as well. And speaking of Billy, Matthew Rhys is able to show us Billy’s ample flaws, while adding emotional context and pain so he’s not just a clear-cut villain. Dornan fulfills the brief of a love interest with his own motivations, but this story ultimately scrubs any romantic heat from his toolbox so he feels a bit wasted.
Despite the good, the pace of the series is too problematic. There’s a strong argument to be made that the whole endeavor could have been distilled down to a more potent two-hour movie. Because as much as I may like a well-shot landscape, I don’t need to feel like I’m handling the farm chores in real time alongside Beth. It’s the pastoral reboot of 24 no one needs, or wants.
As far as Irish tragedies go, Death and Nightingales gets points for authenticity in pain and suffering. However, if you were hoping for some frothiness and passion along with your doomed love story, this one isn’t for you. But if you like cuddling up to some James Joyce before bed, then by all means fire this series up with a staunch Irish whiskey to shoulder that weight.
Death and Nightingales premieres Sunday, May 16th on Starz
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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