Designed to play as a moving adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s bestseller, “The Dovekeepers” is more of a wounded duck. Similar in tone to Lifetime’s “The Red Tent” by entering into such a story from a female perspective, the entire first half of this two-part miniseries essentially feels like an extended preamble to night two, which closes on a sobering note but proves dramatically flaccid until then. Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have made a splashy migration into scripted epics with “The Bible” and NBC’s sequel “A.D.,” but anyone who can endure this with their wits is a true survivor.
Granted, it’s been a generation since the 1981 miniseries “Masada,” but assuming it’s available somewhere, going back and watching that splendid pairing of Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss is an infinitely preferable prospect.
As is, “Dovekeepers” should be most notable to fans of “NCIS” by offering a chance to see Cote de Pablo in a different setting, although before it’s over, the body count in this tale of ancient Israel will be at a level that would occupy her former colleagues for years.
For those fuzzy on the history, Masada was the mountain stronghold where 900 rebellious, vastly outnumbered Jews held off a Roman legion in 70 C.E., before eventually being overrun and meeting a tragic end. The conceit behind Hoffman’s novel was to tell that story through the eyes of several women involved, offering ample opportunity for sex and violence along the way.
In this four-hour adaptation, the entire story is related in flashback by de Pablo’s Shirah, and the lover of the Jews’ leader, Eleazar Ben Ya’ir (Mido Hamada), who cunningly uses guerrilla tactics to keep the invaders at bay; and Yael (Rachel Brosnahan), who has her own woeful tale of misfortune, lost love and hopeless romance, including a relationship with a captured slave (Diarmaid Murtagh).
The two women are being interrogated on behalf of the Romans by the historian Josephus (Sam Neill), whose goal is to determine what happened and why.
As adapted by Ann Peacock and directed by Yves Simoneau, that device virtually saps most of the drama from the narrative, while seemingly relegating Neill to a role similar to Raymond Burr in “Godzilla,” where it feels like his contribution was tacked on after the fact, trying to help viewers follow along.
While there are plenty of concurrent threads — including Kathryn Prescott as Shirah’s warrior daughter, Aziza; and Sam Hazeldine as Flavius Silva, the ruthless leader of the invading Romans — those come across less as fully realized plots than half-baked time-wasters before the main event, when the Romans finally figure out a strategy to breach the seemingly impregnable fortress.
Those closing moments capture some of the romance that has surrounded the story of Masada, but having poorly established the characters even with the occasional Harlequin Romance-style grappling between Shirah and Eleazar, it’s simply too little, too late. And even a fine cast struggles with stilted dialogue like, “You are but a hollow reed blowing in the Roman wind.”
The broadcast networks should be applauded (and even encouraged) for bringing the miniseries back from the brink of extinction and again embracing epic storytelling. But watching “The Dovekeepers” fail to take off merely underscores the difference between anteing up for togas and to lens in Malta and actually producing something with genuine heft.