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‘The Red Tent’: The Old Testament Minus Testosterone

'The Red Tent': The Old Testament Minus Testosterone

It’s been a good season if you’re a sucker for Biblical epics, which I totally am. The flowy outfits! The desert landscapes! The talking to God/mental illness, depending on your views!

The almighty entertainment deities have seen fit to give us two campy spectacles from opposite sides of the gender spectrum this month: Ridley Scott’s film Exodus and the Lifetime miniseries The Red Tent, which aired Sunday and Monday (but can be seen online or on demand).

Adapted from the Anita Diamant bestseller, The Red Tent tells the story of the wives and daughter of Jacob (previously best known as father to Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). Its title refers to the gathering place for menstruating women – an exile or a getaway, depending on how you look at it. The miniseries definitely sees it as a good thing; the men of the tribe are “not invited,” one female character giggles.

She’s Dinah, the central figure in this soapy two-parter. “The Bible gave her one line,” the series tagline goes. “Now her legend will be told.” I can’t track down what that exact sentence is, but her portrayal in the version of the Genesis text I’ve found is pretty grim, not to mention contradictory:

“Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her. His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. And Shechem said to his father Hamor, ‘Get me this girl as my wife.'”

Both Diamant’s book and this miniseries do away with this sketchy raped-but-loved bit (thank god). The movie turns the prince into a stone fox (I referred to him in my notes as “Khal Drogo Lite”) who gives her flowers and goes down on her and is generally pretty dreamy.

Sadly, though, Dinah’s hot Hivite sex is but a flash in the pan. Most of the time, life’s dusty, tedious, and rough for the Old Testament ladies (not that you’d know it from the steamy trailer.)

Director Roger Young, who’s got quite a few Biblical projects under his belt, works with a screenplay by Anne Meredith (the TV movie Bastard Out of Carolina) and Elizabeth Chandler (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) to craft an enjoyably juicy rendering of Diamant’s book. And the cast! Minnie Driver as Leah, the responsible wife; Morena Baccarin as the sexy wife (of course); Debra Winger as Rebecca, the bitchy psychic matriarch; and Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah. Now I’m kicking myself for not watching The White Queen, because Ferguson brings it as this Old Testament riot grrrl.

If you don’t have the four hours to spare, I’d advise jumping into the first part at about an hour and a half in. Dinah’s girlhood and upbringing by Jacob’s four wives and her studying to be a midwife are somewhat slow going (though the scene in which Jacob smashes the matriarch idols in the red tent is fascinating, and I don’t only say this because I was raised by a mother who teaches matriarchal theology. Or maybe I do.)

No, what you want is to get to Dinah the grown woman, who marches into the city of Shechem, falls for the prince (Sean Teale), and marries him without asking her father Jacob (Iain Glen)’s permission because “I will decide who I marry, not him! This is my life, my future, my choice!”

Jacob, unsurprisingly, is pissed.

And when the really awful thing happens – spoiler alert, Jacob’s sons trick Shalem into agreeing to get every male in his kingdom circumcised, and then sneak into the city and kill them all while they’re convalescing – her blistering, blood-covered speech to Jacob is a sort of Inglourious Basterds-esque fantasy of what every woman victimized by male pride should be able to scream at the top of her lungs.

The Red Tent also does a fine job of portraying what a dangerous and chaotic thing it was to give birth when the most medical attention you were likely to get was lavender oil for the pain. But the collective support of women, midwives and otherwise, was what helped many of them through the agony of childbirth.

I also like that the series doesn’t throw all the male characters under the bus; Jacob and his sons (Biblical heroes, right?) are shown to be a pretty backwards lot – even Joseph turns into a bit of an asshole by the end – but the men Dinah chooses for her mates are downright modern. And who’s to say there weren’t equality-minded princes and masons who just didn’t make it into the Good Book?

I give The Red Tent four Tampax out of four, mostly for its over-the-top second half, and for offering what we don’t get enough of: telling the other half of a male-monopolized cultural foundational story.

Oh, and Exodus? I had high hopes, based on the sheer scale and what they did to Joel Edgerton with eyeliner, but it’s a depressing muddle: lots of men doing terrible things to each other in the name of God, which you could also say about the Bible in general. Give me the period tent anyday.

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