Under Karen Arthur's ambitious direction, four-hour study of Texas and Southern pioneer women focuses on three --- two sisters and a friend --- but the focus often blurs as the vidpic expands to cover just about all the major issues of the mid-19th century, particularly abolition and preparations for women's voting rights. Kicking off in 1835 with papier mache characters and covering some 50 years, it feels like it takes a century. Orphaned Phemie Ashby (Tina Majorino), 10, is hauled away from Peach Tree, Ga., and best friend Georgia Lawshe (Rachael Leigh Cook), to live with older, married sister Sarah McClure (Dana Delany with lots of hair) in Texas territory. Pregnant Sarah, married to a Texas Ranger (Powers Boothe), lives modestly with her slave, Tildy (Khadijah Karriem), while her husband is off plotting the Texas revolution or fighting Yanks. Sarah's starchy brother, Travis (Miles Fisher, then Reed Frerichs), coming home from college, serves as a blatant example of an arrogant sense of white superiority.
Following the fall of the Alamo, the whole Mexican army’s coming toward the women’s home while their men are away. Courageous Sarah, taking charge of an all-femme caravan, lights out with them for Louisiana. Bruce Broughton’s rousing score urges them on to the riverbank, helps one woman across the water, paces the brave women fighting off marauders, gallops with Sarah as she flees from a band of Indians led by dreaded Tarantula (Michael Greyeyes). Tarantula’s stunned, as viewers will be, when she escapes by sailing safely off on a genuine cliffhanger.
Back in Peach Tree, living a plantation life like Scarlett’s, Georgia discovers she’s part Indian and could be booted out of the state. Her slave Martha (Salli Richardson), who also happens to be her cousin, comforts her.
Seven years later, Georgia (now played by Angelina Jolie) and husband Dr. Peter Woods (Jeff Nordling) shift bases to Texas, coincidentally near Phemie (Annabeth Gish). The two friends have an unenlightening exchange over abolition, which Phemie favors. Cholera rages, the Civil War flashes by. Years later, one of the aging women, speaking of days past, daringly says to the other, “Sometimes it seems like they weren’t real!”
Scripter Christopher Lofton’s characters just don’t stand up and breathe — maybe because they’re based on historical figures not to be tampered with. Delany, as women’s suffrage advocate Sarah, proves a champ of a heroine, but Sarah herself isn’t interesting. Gish takes a formidable swipe at making Phemie real, but it’s a tough go. Jolie’s Georgia looks sincere and comes close to flesh and blood, but, like the other two, seems to have been created with little conviction.
The male characters are tokens, except for slave Tom — Tony Todd gives him authority and dignity. Nordling’s Dr. Woods leaves a good enough impression, and Greyeyes’ Tarantula is ultimately used to demonstrate that there are such things as good Indians. His run-in with Sarah at a later date should ring with bitterness and poignancy, but the impact’s missing.
Though the story’s based on archives, letters and all sorts of materials, director Arthur and scripter Lofton develop little sense of the period. (It doesn’t help when Phemie urges, “Have a nice day, Mrs. Woods!”) Physically, the pic captures the era better. Production designer Rodger Maus has created a believable town in McDade, Texas. That and the vast landscapes, rivers and valleys give the meller a realistic enough look, and Vicki Sanchez’s costumes look like the real articles. If the miniseries doesn’t come alive, it’s not because of Thomas Neuwirth’s lensing or Corky Ehlers’ first-rate editing.
“True Women” has too many roles — 67 speaking parts and thousands of extras. But the chief trouble is that the three central characters just aren’t that involving, complex or believable. It’s a valiant attempt to re-create history through fresh eyes, but the story wears itself out.