Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Drama lacks the passion of a good fight

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It's a feud that lasted decades and resulted in dozens of lives lost and buckets of spilled blood. Simply put, the Hatfields and the McCoys didn't get along.

But there's one thing they might have been able to agree on, if they'd been given the ability to gaze forward into the future: the beyond-legendary story of their long-simmering conflict deserves a slightly better miniseries dramatization than the one that begins Monday on History TV.

Despite a stellar cast, meticulous attention to period detail, a seemingly rich production budget and an expansive three-part, six-hour time frame in which to tell its tale, Hatfields & McCoys (which premieres Monday at 7 p.m. on History) is bound to leave viewers feeling quite indifferent about a story that history recalls as being driven by the most intense, personal and toxic of passions.

The impressive cast of Hatfields & McCoys is led by Kevin Costner, who plays "Devil" Anse Hatfield, and Bill Paxton, who portrays Randall McCoy. In this telling, the two men -- whose clans occupy adjacent land on opposite sides of the West Virginia/Kentucky border (as divided by the Tug River) -- are lifelong friends whose relationship goes sour during the waning weeks of the U.S. Civil War.

Hatfield, a proven battlefield hero for the Confederate cause, grows weary of the lost-cause fighting and dying and decides to pack up and head home. McCoy, too, knows the South has lost the war, but his sense of duty compels him to stay with his comrades until the bitter end.

By the time Devil makes the long trek home, tensions have already reached a dangerous level between the two clans. Despite his steadying influence as he reclaims control of the extended family's logging business, the more violent (and less astute) members of the backwoods Hatfields continue an escalating series of eye-for-an-eye attacks and counterattacks against the McCoys.

Devil tries to re-establish his friendship with Randall when the latter makes his eventual return, but Randall cannot and will not forgive his neighbour for having abandoned the fight. And his bitterness over the financial advantages Hatfield has gained by quitting the war early will only continue to grow.

Still, both men would prefer a civilized approach to their disagreement, but blood-revenge-bent relatives keep making the situation messy. And just when it seems that the feud can't get any worse, young Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr) goes and falls in love with Randall's daughter, Rosanna (Lindsay Pulsipher).

This version of the Hatfield-McCoy skirmish isn't just a run-and-gun encounter; egged on by distant relation and college-smart lawyer Perry Cline (Ronan Vibert), the McCoys also start dragging the Hatfields into court to seek legal remedy to some of their grievances -- a process made rather more difficult by the fact the local judge is Wall Hatfield (Powers Boothe), who tries his earnest best to be fair, but, well, he's a Hatfield.

It's an intractably nasty situation, punctuated by rightful anger, misinformed accusations and ever-escalating vigilante violence.

The strange thing about Hatfields & McCoys is that the miniseries drama plays out without much in the way of emotion. It isn't just a matter of 19th-century mountain men being stiff-lipped types; the feud, its participants and the deep-rooted motivations that drive them are all portrayed in such a cold, detached manner that it's hard for viewers to feel invested in the story.

It's a great-looking historical yarn, filled with A-list actors capable of delivering solid dramatic performances, but the script lacks emotional nuance and therefore falls flat.

And while that's rather disappointing, and likely to prompt viewers to tune out, it's hardly worth fighting about.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 G6

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