[13 September 2010]
Always topical and typically melodramatic, Lifetime movies are famous for depicting women at critical, often life-threatening crossroads. Lifetime’s The 19th Wife, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by David Ebershoff, is no exception. It weaves together the stories of women, all set against a backdrop of religious fundamentalism and violence.
Set in the world of Mormon polygamy, The 19th Wife—which premieres on 13 September—is an entertaining, if somewhat predictable, murder mystery, a Lifetime movie done well. It might have gotten mileage out of the salacious rumors concerning the actual FLDS (here turned into the FCLDS, or the First Church of Latter-Day Saints), including the forced marriages of underage girls and the stories of “lost boys,” ex-communicated when they resist doctrine. But Rod Holcomb’s movie goes another route, using the unfamiliarity of the closed community’s politics and power dynamics to add a twist to the mystery plot.
When BeckyLyn Scott (Patricia Wettig) is accused of murdering her husband, she’s confronted with a mound of evidence pointing to her guilt. The case breaks open tensions in Mesadale, where the Prophet (Patrick Garrow) controls members’ lives and threatens the safety of those who challenge him. Queenie (Chyler Leigh) takes the risk, summoning BeckyLyn’s exiled son Jordan (Matt Czuchry) home in order to help her clear his mother’s name.
Jordan’s return—and his experience outside Mesadale—lead Queenie to question her own choices, in particular her choice to remain inside. She finds a model for her resistance when she begins secretly reading the memoir of Ann Eliza (Lara Jean Chorostecki), Brigham Young’s 19th wife and an advocate for the Poland Act (a congressional anti-bigamy act passed in 1874). Her story provides frame for the film’s interest in women’s challenges to an oppressive male hierarchy, but it also often slows the modern-day plot. The dangers are made clear in the Prophet’s threats against disobedient young women in Mesadale. Turning away from the modern story for echoes of the same tensions in Mormonism’s early days actually diffuse a good deal of the drama his actions are supposed to invoke.
Layering Ann Eliza’s story in with the main plot, however, is reinforces the Lifetime movie pattern. Like all Lifetime movies, it reiterates vital information. The 19th Wife‘s overstated oppositions, awkward dialogue full of exposition, and overacting are familiar Lifetime elements, but here they appear to be at least partly self-aware. For example, the scene depicting BeckyLyn getting her prison haircut is grandly menacing: a prison guard approaches her with scissors in a large, sunlight-filled dormitory full of other prisoners, while a soft-rock soundtrack and slow-motion shots of hair falling to the ground demonstrate BeckyLyn’s devastation.
If this scene suggests Beckylyn’s emotional trauma, the rest of the plot is more investigative, less melodramatic. Showing how generational differences shape the women’s motivations, the movie has BeckyLyn agreeing to accept her “guilt,” to comply with what’s expected by her community. But Queenie’s desire for the truth indicates her willingness to break with the past and fundamentalism.
The mystery plot is also elaborated through these differences. BeckyLyn knows enough sect gossip to know what’s happened, but refuses to aid in her defense by giving Queenie and Jordan information. In crisis, BeckyLyn can’t let go of what’s familiar to her. But Queenie is willing to defy her husband, endure threats, and steal evidence. Unlike the other wives in the movie—all older than Queenie—she is willing to ask questions about the Prophet’s authority, push community limits, and attempt to act as an equal partner in her marriage. While BeckyLyn’s life is reduced to an account in her husband’s marriage management book, Queenie undergoes a quasi-feminist awakening and comes to agree with Jordan that the manual is “not right.”
The 19th Wife uses the Lifetime movie’s generic template to deliver substantial melodrama. If it indulges in some melodramatic moments, the mystery and character development are engaging enough to make viewers root for BeckyLyn and Queenie’s success.