After its surprising ratings success with last year’s beautifully done Sarah, Plain and Tall, Hallmark Hall of Fame has mounted an elaborate TV version of Willa Cather’s 1913 novel about Nebraska farm settlers in O Pioneers! Jessica Lange stars as Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrant parents who becomes the wise, heroic matriarch of a vast homestead, but who spends most of her life denying her passionate love for her neighbor, Carl Linstrum (Molly Dodd‘s David Strathairn).
Director Glenn Jordan has attempted the same combination of scenic beauty and emotional storytelling he achieved in Sarah, Plain and Tall, but this time his material works against him. Cather’s sturdy stories are filled with revelatory descriptions of the countryside and the lives of women in her era, but the novelist certainly wasn’t interested in the sort of snappy, naturalistic dialogue and plotting that a two-hour TV movie demands.
Cather described Alexandra as ”slow, truthful, steadfast without the least spark of cleverness,” but Lange plays her haughty and dour. Lange’s acting says to us: ”Gaze at what a real, serious actress can do on television.” Yeah — bore us silly. Granted, it’s hard to deliver a line like ”We come and go, but the land is always here, and the people who love and understand it are the people who own it for a little while” without sounding pompous, but still, I’d have given a lot to see Roseanne Arnold pop up in period costume to tell Lange to snap out of it and get real. C