“THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” (1981) Review
Back in early 1981, ABC Television aired a miniseries about the lives of an Anglo-Irish immigrant family called “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA”. Starring Pierce Brosnan and Kate Mulgrew, the miniseries aired in three parts and was marketed as the Irish-American version of the 1977 miniseries, “ROOTS”.
“The Irish-American version of “ROOTS”? Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that similarity genuinely works. Yes, both miniseries focused upon the beginning of a family line in the United States. Both are family sagas set before the 20th century. But the differences between the two productions are so obvious that I found it hard to accept this comparison. The Kunta Kinte character from “ROOTS” was kidnapped from his homeland and dragged into forced labor in the Americas. Worse, he died as a slave. The Rory O’Manion character was forced to flee his Ireland homeland from British oppression. And despite facing American bigotry against Irish immigrants, he was able to become a well-respected businessman by the end of the series. “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” focused upon one generation – Rory, his sister Deidre and their loved ones – within a period of two decades or so. As for “ROOTS”, it focused upon four to five generations for at least ten to eleven decades.
Part One of “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA”begins in 1845 Ireland. This episode focused upon the intoduction of the O’Manion family and their struggles during the Great Famine. Both Rory and his twin brother, Padric O’Manion, are hired by a newly arrived English landlord named Harry Clement to work on the latter’s estate. Rory meets and falls in love with Mr. Clement’s daughter and younger offspring, Rachel. Rory’s sister Deidre meets and falls in love with Rachel’s older brother, a British Army officer named David. Both couples face considerable strain, due to nationality and class. But Rory’s participation in the Young Ireland not only places considerable strain on his romance with Rachel, but also Deidre’s relationship with David. Worse, his political activism leads to a tragic parting between him and Padric. Rory is eventually forced to flee Ireland for the United States.
Part Two begins at least two to three years following the events of Part One. Rory is reunited with Rachel, who has moved to Philadelphia following the death of her father. She ends up living with with her aunt Charlotte Kent and the latter’s husband, a powder mill owner named James Kent. Rachel convinces her uncle to hire Rory as an employee. The young couple also become acquainted with a banker named Caleb Staunton, who becomes impressed by Rory’s ambition and business acumen. Caleb also ends up falling in love with Deidre, who finally arrives in the United States in the wake of a family tragedy involving the youngest O’Manion sibling. And Rachel receives disturbing news about her brother David . . . news that ends up having a major impact on Deidre’s future. Part Three mainly focused on the years following the end of the U.S. Civil War and Rory’s attempt to keep the Kent Powder Works that he has purchased with two partners (Caleb and David). Rory’s business dealings also clash with his resumed interest in his political activism regarding Ireland. And while Deidre finds herself struggling with Caleb’s jealousy of her past relationship with David, Rory endangers both his marriage and friendship with a fellow immigrant with a dangerous affair.
When I first saw “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” when I was a kid, I was pretty impressed with it. Even back then, I was a literary and history nut with a weakness for family sagas. And this miniseries seemed to fulfill my desire for those stories to a “T”. A recent viewing of the production made me realize that I still found it very satisfying. I would not regard“THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” on the same level as a good number of historical television dramas I have seen over the following years. But I feel that Agnes Nixon and Rosemary Anne Sisson created a solid television drama that managed to hold up very well after three decades. As I had pointed out earlier, “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” focused only on one generation . . . namely the one that featured Rory O’Manion, his sister Deidre, his twin brother Padric O’Manion, the youngest sibling who might or might not be the missing Sean O’Manion, Rachel Clements and her brother David. Nixon and Sisson did a solid job of balancing the experiences of the main characters’ experiences.
Part One focused upon the establishment of the romances between the O’Manion and the Clement siblings, along with the events that led to Rory’s flight from Ireland. Part Two focused not only on the reunions and problems of the two romantic couples, but also on Rory’s financial and professional rise in the United States. And Part Three focused on Rory and Deidre’s possible reunion with a young man they believe to be their missing brother Sean; the events that led to the culmination of the love triangle between Deidre, David and Caleb; Rory’s last hurrah with the movement to free Ireland from British rule; and the events that led to the birth of a new generation in the now Manion family. Frankly, I thought they balanced the miniseries’ narratives very well. More importantly, the story arcs featured first-rate direction by both Charles S. Dubin and Joseph Sargent; along with solid writing by Nixon and Sisson . . . with the exception of one story arc.
The one story arc that proved to be problematic for me was Rory and Rachel’s efforts to have children. I had no problem with Rachel’s miscarriage near the end of Part Two. It was basically used as a plot device to reconcile her with Rory and Deidre, who were angry about the lie she told about David’s fate in India. The lie encouraged Deidre to go ahead and marry Caleb Staunton, who was planning to form a partnership with Rory over a powder sale. But Part Three opened with Rachel suffering another miscarriage during the Civil War (she had suffered other miscarriages in the period between the two episodes). This latest miscarriage eventually led Rory to have an affair with another woman, in order to prevent himself from having sex with Rachel and impregnating her. And with whom does he have this affair? With the unmarried daughter of one of his closest friends and colleagues. Is this bat-shit crazy or what? I will give kudos to Rory being more concerned with his wife’s health than the idea of conceiving an heir. But I found this story arc just plain stupid and the main reason why Part Three is my least favorite episode. I find it odd that a good number of people seemed dismissive of the Deidre-David-Caleb love triangle. Yet, no one complained about this idiotic story arc about Rory and Rachel’s marriage. And it ended on a note that to this day, I still detest.
“THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” was filmed in Ireland and England (one or two scenes). And it showed. Part One benefited from the Irish locations . . . especially since it was that episode was set in Ireland. But once the story shifted to the United States, the locations did not serve the setting very well. I suppose the miniseries’ producers called themselves trying to save money on the production. If so, they could have shot the film in the United States or Canada. Unless filming in Ireland was considered cheap back in the early 1980s. “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” featured three cinematographers – Lamar Boren, Héctor R. Figueroa and Frank Watts. I found this rather odd for a television miniseries that only featured three episodes. And yet, this would explain the inconsistent style of photography for the production. The scenes ranged from bright and colorful – especially in Part Two – to dark and rather depressing. And from what I have seen, the dark photography DID NOT serve any particular scene, aside from those featuring the interior of the O’Manions’ dank hovel in Part One. I also have mixed feelings regarding the costumes designed by Barbara Lane. The costumes she designed especially for Kate Mulgrew, Linda Purl, Kathleen Beller and Barbara Parkins in Episodes Two and Three were beautiful and excellent examples of women’s fashion between the 1840s and the 1860s. However, I had a problem with Mulgew’s costumes in Part One. They looked as if they came straight from a costume warehouse in Hollywood. And they seemed a bit of a come down for a character that was supposed to be the daughter of a well-to-do English landowner.
A good number of the reviews I have read for “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” did not seem that impressed by the supporting cast. Well, I feel differently. I thought the three-part miniseries was blessed by excellent performances – not only from the leads Pierce Brosnan and Kate Mulgrew – but also the supporting players. I was very impressed by Linda Purl’s command of an Irish accent and the amazing way that she conveyed both the quiet and demure side of Deidre O’Manion, along with the character’s sharp temper and strong will. Simon MacCorkindale’s portrayal of young British officer, David Clements, made it very easy for me to see why Deidre had no problems with falling in love with his character. MacCorkindale gave a very passionate, yet charming performance. David Soul’s performance as Caleb Staunton struck me as very interesting, complex and also very appealing. Despite his Caleb being a more introverted man, Soul did an excellent job in making it clear why Deidre would find him attractive as a mate . . . and why Rory regarded him as a potential business partner. Steve Forrest was very interesting as Rachel’s uncle-by-marriage, James Kent. Forrest did an excellent job in conveying Kent’s respectable facade and the chaotic emotions he felt toward his niece. His attempt to “seduce” his niece was a squirm worthy moment. Barbara Parkins gave a very competent performance as Rachel’s chilly aunt Charlotte. Yet, Parkins managed to show the hot jealousy toward Rachel, underneath the chilly facade. Anthony Quayle made his presence known as the temperamental English landowner and magistrate, Lord Montgomery. There were moments when Quayle seemed a bit over-the-top The movie also boasted some first-class performances from Kathleen Beller, Peter Gilmore, Simon Rouse, Hurd Hatfield, Jim Culleton and Tom Jordan.
“THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” marked Pierce Brosnan’s first role in an American production. And he really took it to the max as the fiery political immigrant, Rory O’Manion. Brosnan’s performance is probably one of the most energetic he has given throughout his career. That is due, of course, to the hot-tempered and obsessive nature of his character. But as much as I admired Brosnan’s performance, I must admit there were times when I found the Rory O’Manion character a bit hard to like. He struck me as unrelentingly obsessed with his political activities against the English and too self-righteous for me to relate with. Equally fiery was Kate Mulgrew, who portrayed Rory’s English wife, Rachel. Mulgrew did a superb job in portraying Rachel’s strong, romantic nature; her intelligence and talent for manipulation. Also, both she and Brosnan made such a fiery screen team that they were almost resembled a bonfire. Yet, my vote for the best performance in the miniseries would have gone to Nicholas Hammond, who had the difficulty of portraying two members of the O’Manion family (allegedly). In Part One, Hammond gave a complex and skillful performance as Rory’s non-identical twin brother, Padric O’Manion, whose quiet and pacifist nature led to conflict and great tragedy within the family. And in Part Three, he gave another superb performance as a rowdy and independent-minded ex-Confederate soldier who may or may not be Rory and Deidre’s missing younger brother, Sean. I was impressed by how Hammond conveyed Sean’s blunt personality and inner conflict over the possibility of finally discovering his family and retaining his independence.
Overall, “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” is a pretty solid production that did a first-rate job in presenting a family saga that began in Ireland and ended in the United States during the mid 19th century. Yes, the miniseries suffered from inconsistent photography that ranged from colorful to unnecessarily dark. And the subplot regarding the main protagonists’ marriage in the third episode struck me as particularly ridiculous. But I still managed to enjoy the production as a whole and regard it as a fine example of what both Pierce Brosnan and Kate Mulgrew were capable during the early stages of their careers.
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