Though it tries to cover far too much ground and inevitably bogs down during its second night, this two-part, five-hour NBC mini from David and Mark Wolper is surprisingly entertaining and compelling as it tells the story of some of the 20th century’s great women through the eyes of one family. If anyone questioned Lea Thompson’s ability to carry an epic network project with aplomb, “A Will of Their Own” should remove all doubt. She turns in stellar work as the pluckiest and most passionate of heroines.
It may shock those accustomed to Thompson’s whitebread work week after week on the NBC sitcom “Caroline in the City” to see her really act; but clearly, she can, and she does. Thompson puts a strong, but not overbearing, face on a fictitious character, photojournalist Amanda Stewart, who shattered all the gender rules and social mores of her time in becoming the ultimate woman of substance.
There’s fire in Thompson’s belly here, and the result is an Emmy-quality performance.
Based on the novel “Daughters of the New World” by Susan Richards Shreve, mini is simply a crackling good soap through its opening three hours, with writer Susan Nanus bringing women’s suffrage/liberation history to life in portrayals of legends like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Singer (played with spirit by Faye Dunaway) and farm worker activist Jessie Lopez de la Cruz (Sonia Braga).
But the soul of the story is Amanda, and “A Will of Their Own” documents the struggle of women through six generations of her family between 1884 and 1985.
Amanda is cast as something of a Leonard Zelig of the women’s movement, growing up a free spirit and at various times hanging with bohemians in Greenwich Village, getting arrested for protesting with Sanger’s disciples, dressing wounds on the battlefield during World War I, triumphing through the Great Depression, taking on Joe McCarthy and shooting pictures of every major event of our time.
The headstrong Amanda locks horns with anyone who dares get in her way, including her judgmental grandmother (Ellen Burstyn). And inevitably, mini can’t help but wear its sexism on its sleeve. Pretty much all of the men here have a touch of slime in them, including: James MacClaren (Thomas Gibson), Amanda’s first love and father of her child; Dr. Jonathan Abbott (John Shea), Amanda’s anal-retentive husband; and, in part two, the arrogant Pierce Peterson (Eric McCormack), who marries Amanda’s daughter Sarah (Paris Jefferson) to everyone’s great regret.
The sweep, intensity and rapture of the mini’s first night give way to unbridled chaos in the final two-hour seg that attempts to cover 65-years of ambition, dismay, determination, progress and death, concluding in 1985 with Amanda, an 89-year-old grandmother, showing off her photographs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Helmer Karen Arthur keeps the suds flowing well, but the script bites off so much that it implodes about halfway through David Michael Frank’s thundering score on Monday.
Yet despite that concluding whimper and the project’s penchant toward melodrama as a whole, “Will of Their Own” is a captivating way to spend roughly an evening and a half. And Thompson is a feisty force of nature. Tech credits all sparkle.