Take this birdwatching and apply it to humanity, and you have the incredibly grim outlook of “Death and Nightingales,” the miniseries adaptation of Eugene McCabe’s acclaimed novel. Writer and director Allan Cubitt follows pretty much every beat of McCabe’s novel in this three-part limited series (which premiered on Starz on May 16), creating a story about secrecy and betrayal, colonialism and the nationalism, and patriarchy and oppression in 19th century Ireland. Kudos to Cubitt for not stretching this story beyond its natural point – three episodes feel right – and for casting an especially strong trio in Ann Skelly (from “The Nevers”), Matthew Rhys and Jamie Dornan. But a few of these character turns are so predictable that some reveals lack impact, and various scenes have such superfluous and crushed dialogue that the performers dive head first into inorganic theatricality. Skelly is surprisingly tough, Rhys is a fantastic howler, and Dornan is quite pretty when he ruminates. “Death and Nightingales” ends up underestimating them, however, with a narrative you can guess within the first 30 minutes of “Episode 1,” and with only a few cinematic or editing flourishes to complete this fairly conventional story.
Set in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, during one day in July 1885, “Death and Nightingales” is told from the perspective of Beth Winters (Skelly), 23, daughter-in-law of Billy Winters ( Rhys), owner of the Clonuala estate where they both live. Three hundred years and six generations ago, Billy’s British Protestant family helped invade and colonize Ireland and used fur skins stolen from the French to secure their golden fortune. Since then Billy’s family have owned the land around Clonuala, and he also owns the local rock quarry, from which virtually everyone in the area, including Roman Catholic Bishop Jimmy Donnelly (Seán McGinley ), on the other side of religion divide like Billy – must buy their stone. Billy seems to hate this place, but he also supported his wealth, which made him stingy, demanding and cruel. And while he tells Beth that he loves her, some of the ways Billy acts on that love are not the way a stepdad should behave with his daughter.
Beth, for her part, hates Billy; Skelly radiates that hatred through his aggressive body language, all his stares, his jaw clenched, and his chin up. She hates the way Billy abused his Irish Catholic mother (Valene Kane) before her death; she hates the way Billy turned her into a workhorse by passing her potential legacy over her head. While he gets drunk most evenings (and some days), she takes care of their cows and other animals, she cleans and helps with cooking, she churns butter and helps her maid Mercy (Charlene McKenna), one of the few workers in the field. Why should Billy hire someone else when Beth is there? It’s not like she’s his biological daughter. If she wants to stay, she has to earn her place.