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CBS's 'Joan of Arc' a credible representation

Sunday, May 16, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

There's a mini-series revival in broadcast television, but most of these minis have been major disappointments.

These multipart stories draw millions of viewers to the set, but many suffer from minimal character development, redundant "quest"-style plots and an absence of drama. Too often it seems like producers are simply going through the paces; frequently the stories lack heart.


'Joan of Arc'

When: 9 tonight and Tuesday on CBS.

Starring: Leelee Sobieski, Peter O'Toole, Neil Patrick Harris


With the exception of HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon," none of the mini-series in recent years have entertained me like '80s classics such as "North and South," "The Blue and the Gray" or even "The Thorn Birds" and "V."

Finally, there's a network mini-series that comes close: CBS's four-hour "Joan of Arc," premiering at 9 tonight.

The first part is somewhat lightweight as Joan (Leelee Sobieski) begins the path to her fire-filled destiny. But Tuesday's conclusion is tense, dramatic and fleshes out the characters that at first come across as stick figures.

Through it all, Joan stands apart thanks to 16-year-old Sobieski, who previously appeared in the films "Deep Impact" and "Never Been Kissed."

She looks like a young Helen Hunt, and possesses a gravity beyond her years. With her yearning blue eyes, Sobieski's Joan is utterly credible when she says God is speaking to her. Her conviction seems courageous; a lesser actress might appear nutty.

"Joan of Arc" begins in Domremy with Joan's childhood during the early 15th century and quickly zips through time to 1429 when a 16-year-old Joan faces off against her tradition-minded father (Powers Boothe).

After an attack by the Burgundians, Joan realizes her calling when she hears the voices of saints guiding her toward her destiny. She sets off to find King Charles VII (Neil Patrick Harris), an ineffective, boyish monarch more interested in playing games than leadership.

Charles convinces Joan to misrepresent herself as "The Maid of Lorraine," a legendary heroine. With this billing Joan rallies the troops to follow her and veteran warrior Capt. La Hire (Peter Strauss) into battle.

It's not until night two when supporting characters such as Charles and Bishop Cauchon (Peter O'Toole) come to life as political machinations and betrayals drive the story toward the inevitable trial and burning of Joan at the stake.

"Joan of Arc" misses opportunities to make clear the political situation and details about the warring factions. By the end you'll pretty much understand what's going on, but in the early going viewers would benefit from more historical Cliff's Notes.

The star-packed mini-series wastes several of its big name stars in under-developed roles, most notably Jacqueline Bisset as Joan's understanding mother and an unrecognizable Olympia Dukakis as a nun.

Shirley MacLaine shows up Tuesday night as Madame de Beaurevoir, an influential Burgundian who briefly takes a captured Joan into her care before the deputy of France's Holy Inquisition (Maximilian Schell) puts her on trial.

Chad Willett, from the 1996-1997 syndicated astronaut drama "The Cape," plays Jean de Metz, a nobleman who gradually falls in love with Joan, although he never reveals his feelings to her.

Aside from Sobieski, the most memorable performances come from Harris and O'Toole.

As the foppish king who turns out to be more devious than expected, Harris transforms smoothly from an ineffective sovereign into a master manipulator.

O'Toole's malevolent Bishop Cauchon becomes the living embodiment of the creepy judge from Disney's 1996 animated movie "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." He may be a man of the cloth, but he's far from holy. And thank goodness for the sake of drama. Cauchon takes center stage in "Joan of Arc's" most pivotal scenes, creating conflict and intriguing plot twists.

Don't expect to see the French countryside in "Joan of Arc." The mini-series was filmed near Prague, and doesn't offer much in the way of scenic beauty. The look is rather drab and gray. Of course, these were the Dark Ages.

While the landscape lacks, Sobieski radiates confidence and determination. She's not yet a household name, but a few years from now we'll remember "Joan of Arc" as the project that ushered her into the mainstream public eye.

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