Saturday 16 February 2013

Cardboard Appalachia

As an art form the miniseries is arguably well past its prime, at least in the United States (it's alive and well in Britain, as shown by innumerable BBC costume dramas). The gold standard for the American miniseries, to my mind at least, is North and South (1985), which despite thick layers of cheese had star power and soapy drama enough to satisfy. Last year's Hatfields & McCoys aims for similar territory, but it's hamstrung by its own incuriosity and excessive reverence.

During the American Civil War 'Devil' Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) fight for the Confederacy together, but a rift develops between the men when Hatfield, recognising the futility of the fight, deserts and returns to West Virginia. He increases his wealth by buying up and logging woodland, while McCoy returns to Kentucky a broken man after years in captivity. His resentment increases when Harmon McCoy (Chad Hugghins) is found murdered, with 'Devil' Anse's uncle Jim Vance (Tom Berenger) the prime suspect.

The hostility between the families worsens when Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr) falls in love with Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher). Roseanna is thrown out by Randall, and 'Devil' Anse reluctantly allows her to stay with the Hatfields but will not allow Johnse to marry her. Johnse chooses loyalty to his family over the pregnant Roseanna, who is sent away to live with an elderly relative. Shortly after, three of McCoy's sons murder Ellison Hatfield (Damian O'Hare), and are in turn captured and executed by the Hatfields. The bloodiest phase of the feud begins when McCoy and his lawyer kinsman Perry Cline (Ronan Vibert) hire ex-Pinkerton bounty hunter 'Bad' Frank Phillips (Andrew Howard) to lead a posse into West Virginia and hunt down the Hatfields, who have withdrawn into the mountains.

Hatfields & McCoys boasts glorious production design: the costumes alone are worth the price of admission. It's generally well directed by Costner's longstanding collaborator Kevin Reynolds, with the noticeable exception of the fairly embarrassing Battle of Grapevine in the final episode. The editing is fluid, but Arthur Reinhart's cinematography - pointlessly pretty where the film should get right down in the mud with its protagonists - lets the project down a bit. Still, that would add up to a pass. It's the writing that really undermines the whole affair.

This is how producer Leslie Greif describes the theme of the miniseries: 'I felt that the story was bigger than just the Hatfield and McCoys. It talked about the tragic cycle of violence that's been throughout all of man's history, whether it's feuding with your neighbo[u]rs over the height of trees or the Crips and the Bloods or the PLO or the IRA or just a bully where both people are picking sides.' That's the problem: for the sake of 'all of man's history', Greif ignores the specificity that would have given her story shape. All that time and money could have been used to chronicle the feud before a backdrop of identity, honour and social change in late-nineteenth-century Appalachia. Instead, Hatfields & McCoys dispenses with a sense of place, giving us cardboard cutouts, a cliché-storm plot and unending tedium in front of a vast nothingness.

It's all stock characters wandering about, occasionally shooting each other. 'Greetings, fellow symbol of the human condition! I am angry. I am sad,' they might as well say in the worst Hollywood Southern writers Ted Mann and Ronald Parker can muster. Female characters fall into a Madonna-whore pattern so rigid it would have been considered unseemly in the silent film days. (Roseanna is good and pure, while her cousin Nancy is sexually rapacious and wicked. And so it goes.) Johnse Hatfield obeys his father without fail, then whinges about the injury done to his precious conscience: I sure do hate him, but I the script doesn't indicate whether I'm supposed to. The closest Hatfields & McCoys has to narrative arcs is that the 'good' patriarch - the austere, puritanical Randall McCoy - becomes an embittered alcoholic, while his mercenary counterpart is eventually redeemed.

All of that sinks the miniseries and most actors sink with it, delivering wooden, one-note performances. But there are exceptions, and the series' Emmy wins are right on the money. Tom Berenger, a grossly underrated character actor, is an absolute delight: impious and deadly yet jovial, his Jim Vance is a mesmerising old-school badass. Ronan Vibert is amazingly smarmy, while Andrew Howard's hammy villainy is almost infinitely enjoyable. It's Costner, though, that surprised me the most. The man's made a career of a certain brand of amiable dullness, but here he does great work as a cold and calculating man who nevertheless loves his family enough to know when the time has come to end the feud. They're worth watching, those guys. I just wish they weren't stuck in such a rote, joyless exercise.

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