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The Thorn Birds (12)



Review: Lizzie Guilfoyle

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Old Friends, New Stories (behind the scenes documentary).

THE Thorn Birds first captivated television viewers, 120 million of them, over 20 years ago and, justifiably, won a Golden Globe for Best Mini Series of 1983. Available now on DVD, Colleen McCullough's epic story of a forbidden love that endures against insurmountable odds, looks set to delight audiences all over again.

It all begins in 1915, when Paddy Cleary, a poor New Zealand farm labourer, moves his wife and children to Drogheda, the vast Australian sheep station owned by Mary Carson, Paddy's wealthy, childless and aging sister.

Waiting to greet them at the station is Mary's priest, the young, ambitious and handsome Ralph de Bricassart who is instantly drawn to the child Meggie, only daughter in a family of sons.

A bond, based on mutual love and admiration, is forged but, as Meggie grows to womanhood, the nature of their love takes on new meaning - for Meggie, it's the natural manifestation of years of loving Ralph; while for Ralph, it becomes an emotional battlefield as, for the first time in his life, his love for God is challenged by one of the flesh.

It's an emotive subject which handled insensitively, could so easily become merely tacky. That it doesn't owes much to the performances of Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward, who make the characters of Ralph and Meggie so utterly believable.

A further measure of Ward's performance can be judged by my initial reaction to her first screen appearance as the adult Meggie.

For having read the book and visualized her in my mind's eye, I was somewhat disappointed. Yet, in no time at all, I was completely won over.

And Barbara Stanwyck, as Mary, is magnificent. Her impassioned outpouring to Ralph reveals the inner torment of a young girl trapped inside the body of an old woman - a sentiment that will surely strike a note with older viewers. And it is Mary who ultimately seals Ralph and Meggie's fate.

The Thorn Birds is a deeply moving story with strong characters and an equally strong supporting cast.

Jean Simmonds is Meggie's mother, Fee, who harbours a dark secret; Piper Laurie and Earl Holliman are Anne and Luddie Mueller, the childless couple who care deeply for Meggie; Bryan Brown is Luke O'Neill, Ralph's rival for Meggie's love and lastly, but by no means least, Christopher Plummer is Cardinal Vittorio di Contini-Verchese, Ralph's friend and mentor in Rome.

The story does, in fact, have its roots in a legend about 'a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the Earth.

From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale.'

The message is a simple one - that the best is only bought at the cost of great pain. And so it is with Ralph and Meggie.

Music does, of course, play an important part in creating atmosphere and conveying emotion.

The theme tune is light and brisk - like the odd kangaroo (or two) occasionally seen bounding across Drogheda's acres. The love theme, on the other hand, is a haunting melody that captures the imagination and will have you humming it, long after you've switched off.

Although not adhering strictly to the book, The Thorn Birds loses none of its original impact and with the long, dark evenings ahead, will make compulsive viewing. But, be warned - keep a box of tissues to hand.

 

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