When in doubt, I can always rely on Netflix to serve up a worthy historical spectacle or two. Or at least, I like to think I can. That’s why, on a night mainly devoted to tidying my study (seriously, it looks pretty great now) I put on the 2016 Irish historical miniseries Rebellion. And it’s … it’s OK.
That trailer, though, I dunno.
Anyway, the idea is that it’s the story of the 1916 Easter Rising, told from the perspective not of Famous Historical Personages but of a range of different characters: a socialist socialite, her wastrel brother, a secretary at the Castle, a soldier in the British army, his militant socialist brother, a nationalist revolutionary, etc., etc. They represent a varying range of views about the question of Irish independence, they’re all affected by it in different ways, you know the drill.
They clearly spent a lot of money on it, the performances are all good, and it does (to my inexpert eye) a pretty good job of evoking life in WWI Ireland. But unfortunately I’m not sure it succeeds either as a historical epic or as a character-focused drama.
The idea, I guess, was to have the different characters represent different viewpoints: so soldier guy Art doesn’t necessarily love the British, but his family needs the money and he views his revolutionary brother Jimmy as an irresponsible troublemaker. Secretary May works for the British government, and her connection to the Rising is personal rather than ideological. Nationalist Gaelic-Romantic type Frances, on the other hand, is all full of piss and vinegar about the nation, while Jimmy cares about the workers … that kind of thing. You get the picture.
But the result is that some of the personal subplots feel empty. Like, Elizabeth (the socialite) has a drunk, useless cynic of a brother, who gets into various scrapes as the story progresses. But, like, there are people shooting at each other in the streets. Who gives a shit if some moustached douchebag needs some money? And May has an affair with her boss, but he’s a self-centred jerkoff, and, again, who cares? A nation is being born amid the fires of revolution but her encounters with her boss’s wife are really awkward and clearly we’re meant to care about that but it just sort of produces bathos. I guess the point is meant to be that life goes on even amid the chaos, which is, fair enough, an important point to remember. But it’s hardly gripping television.
As a result of this focus on the fictional characters and their personal problems, the historical characters wind up getting short shrift .They can’t not be in it, after all, but they’re in it so briefly that they wind up as sort of caricatures of themselves. Literally 50% of Michael Collins’ lines are just him saying “Michael Collins.” Did you know that Patrick Pearse was a pious, ascetic nationalist? And that James Connolly was a gruff socialist? I don’t even know if he was gruff, but he has an appropriate moustache for it.
I feel the same way about this as I did about Young Bruce Lee. It’s more interesting in its evocation of setting, in its look and feel, than in its narrative. It’s not bad, but it’s never really great, and part of that is just that it tackles a subject that is very resistant to anything other than straight-faced, reverential treatment.