It would take a miracle to top the ratings triumph of the 1983 “Thorn Birds” miniseries. “The Missing Years” covers a period written about in Colleen McCullough’s book, but skipped over in the original TV outing. What was shocking and salacious a dozen years ago could be seen as tame today; does the story have enough spice to capture the imagination again? Writer David Stevens and director Kevin James Dobson seem to think so, since the script is underwritten in crucial respects and Dobson is more comfortable with large vistas than human intimacy.
Nevertheless, the love story is still involving, and Richard Chamberlain and Amanda Donohoe effectively convey guilt, longing and anguish in the romance between a young woman and a Catholic priest. In addition to treating the tension between love of God and love of a woman, the thematic mix includes definitions of manhood, family, and the joys and sorrows of parenting.
After Chamberlain’s voiceover explanation of the thorn bird legend, mini opens in Rome, 1943. Father Ralph or, more formally, Archbishop de Bricassart (Chamberlain), is providing sanctuary for war refugees and takes heat from Cardinal Vittorio (Maximilian Schell) for using monies from the estate of Mary Carson to do so.
Meggie (Donohoe), with whom he hasn’t communicated for 10 years, is very much on his mind.
She’s back in Australia overseeing the sheep station Drogheda — owned by the church and administered by Ralph — while her brothers are off at war. A two-year drought necessitates a man’s touch, and two contenders soon arrive.
Meggie’s estranged husband, Luke (Simon Westaway), hopes to reunite the family, including daughter Justine (Olivia Burnette) and son Dane (Zach English). The identity of Dane’s real father is known only to Meggie, Meggie’s mother Fee (Julia Blake), and the audience. The fact that Dane wants to become a priest is a clue.
The children need a father; the lonely Meggie gets pregnant and agrees to start over with Luke on a rundown farm. Ralph is sent back to Australia to check on Drogheda and to relocate refugees, using official government channels.
He and Meggie meet accidentally on the train platform, a potentially charged moment that helmer Dobson fails to exploit. She is committed to Luke, and Ralph gives his blessing. But Luke’s violent jealousy leads to a miscarriage for Meggie, who leaves him at the end of telepic’s first night.
Most of the second night is taken up with a custody battle for Dane, carefully and effectively dramatized in courtroom scenes. Jack Thompson gives a stern turn as a methodical, anti-Catholic judge.
A torrential storm ends the drought, and gives Meggie and Ralph an opportunity to consummate the missing years. He offers to leave the priesthood, but she won’t let him, knowing his love for God, although tested, is still strong. It shouldn’t take four hours to tell this story, and it’s easy to see why this section was cut the first time around. At story’s conclusion, things are just as they were at the beginning: Meggie knows she doesn’t need Luke and can’t have Ralph; Ralph has sinned again, but it was worth it, having restored his faith in love of all kinds.
Plot hinges on Meggie’s refusal to expose Dane’s father. The script doesn’t highlight her prime motivation: to protect Ralph’s high-flying career. It’s logical and noble but, left unexpressed, leads to viewer frustration.
Chamberlain and Donohoe are well-matched. Her voice can hold its own next to his, and she excels on night two. Chamberlain transmits the ethereal and the worldly equally well. Burnette has excellent moments as Justine; Westaway’s Luke vividly represents a particular side of masculinity.
Dobson tries to squeeze more out of the non-talking sequences than is warranted. Bombing raids and an inflated, rainy roundup scene on the ranch seem like filler, as do some extraneous scenes concerning Fee and her sons that disrupt the flow. The camera keeps a too-respectful distance from the actors.
Interiors are first-rate, but the Roman exteriors are transparently studio creations. Australian outdoors and the Drogheda homestead are impressive. When not in his archbishop’s garb, Ralph’s casual attire seems out of period. Likewise, his makeup is often distracting.