Judge Diane Wild wonders if the world really needed this DVD release.
Reignite the passion in this untold chapter of the epic miniseries.
The Thorn Birds was a 1983 miniseries based on the bestselling book by Colleen McCullough, and gave us the story of the forbidden love between priest Ralph de Bricassart and young Meggie Cleary, spanning 40 years from the 1920s to 60s. With that kind of scope, it didn't lend itself to a true sequel, so the one recourse to suck some more money out of the franchise was to fill in The Thorn Birds—The Missing Years. This quasi-sequel was broadcast in 1996, and covers a short period of time during World War Two, which was not so much "missing" as "considered unnecessary in the original book and miniseries."
In The Missing Years, Meggie's estranged husband Luke has returned after learning they have a son, Dane—a son Meggie kept from him, because she can't reveal that he is actually Ralph's child without causing scandal. As Meggie struggles to decide between reuniting her family and rekindling her affair with the Archbishop, and risks losing custody of her son, newly returned Ralph is torn between his vows and his love for Meggie.
Richard Chamberlain (The Towering Inferno) is the only one of the cast to return, now as Archbishop de Bricassart, who is sent from rescuing war refugees in Rome back to the Australian sheep ranch where he first met and loved Meggie. While Chamberlain theoretically must have aged about 13 years since the original, he looks good enough to credibly fill the role, despite the sequel's shift back in time. Meggie, played by Rachel Ward in the original, looks very much like Amanda Donohoe (The Lair of the White Worm) now, and other recognizable actors have been replaced with generic alternatives as well. Devotees of the original series may be curious to see anything that purports to explain what happened to the familiar and well-loved characters, but many will likely be disappointed at the dissonance of seeing unfamiliar faces playing these characters.
The Missing Years needs to be taken on its own merits, but they're unfortunately slim. It's not a terrible television movie, but it is bloated and unnecessary. Most disappointing is the sheer pointlessness of the story. We've seen this dichotomy between duty and love before, better, in the original, and we know how these characters end up after the original series, so the overblown drama feels like a desperate attempt to create tension. Ralph is sent back to Meggie's ranch to avoid scandal in Rome, after his unauthorized use of church money to help refugees, even though the Cardinal who sent him knows about the affair. Meggie's husband might as well be wearing a black hat, so easily identifiable he is as the bad guy, and while his convoluted scheme to get custody of Dane is necessary to the plot, it is another indication that the plot is unnecessary—all these twists and turns get us to a point we have already been shown.
It's hard to take Ralph seriously as a romantic figure in the Archbishop robes, so thankfully they come up with reasons to put him in civilian clothes. Forbidden love is a classic romantic plot, but with the passage of time and ensuing scandals against the church, there is a certain discomfort in the material that I didn't feel when watching the original as a young teen.
It takes a third of the movie to reunite Ralph and Meggie, which is the only real reason to watch this high-budget soap opera that tries to be too much—war drama, courtroom drama, romance, intrigue. There's no shame in doing cheesy romance well, as the original did, but the obvious stock footage and bad special effects in the war and storm scenes only underscores the fact that this miniseries can't sustain its far-ranging ambitions.
The Thorn Birds—The Missing Years is presented on DVD as one continuous movie rather than divided into the two mini-series episodes as broadcast. This leads to an awkward transition of over-the-top cliffhanger drama followed by leisurely scenery establishing shot, not to mention an inhumanely long stretch of uninterrupted viewing of the 179 minute running time. While the DVD has no extras, you'll be grateful for the scene selections if you choose to view it in more manageable chunks.
I would have had no moments of regret if Warner Bros. had decided not to release this on DVD, but since they did, it would have been nice to have more attention paid to the video quality. Some of the problem is with the use of incredibly grainy stock footage, but even the original footage shows an alarming amount of grain, artifacts, and washed out colors in many scenes. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is adequate for the material, and renders dialogue and the occasional sound effect clearly with minimal distortion.
Fans of the original are not likely to be enamored with The Thorn Birds—The Missing Years, but it doesn't stand alone as a worthwhile viewing experience for those coming new to the material, either. I didn't miss the missing years, but I do miss the three hours I missed watching it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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