Take that ornithological observation and apply it to humanity, and you have the incredibly bleak perspective of “Death and Nightingales,” the miniseries adaptation of Eugene McCabe’s acclaimed novel. Writer and director Allan Cubitt follows pretty much all of McCabe’s novel’s beats in this three-part limited series (premiering on Starz on May 16), crafting a story about secrecy and betrayal, colonialism and nationalism, and patriarchy and oppression in 19th century Ireland. Kudos to Cubitt for not stretching this story past its natural point—three episodes feels just right—and for casting a mostly strong trio in Ann Skelly (of “The Nevers”), Matthew Rhys, and Jamie Dornan. But a few of these character turns are so predictable that certain reveals lack impact, and various scenes have dialogue so superfluously flowery and overwritten that the performers dive headfirst into inorganic theatricality. Skelly is surprisingly hard-edged, Rhys is a fantastic yeller, and Dornan is quite pretty when he broods. “Death and Nightingales” ultimately underserves them, though, with a narrative you can guess at within the first 30 minutes of “Episode 1,” and with only few cinematographic or editing flourishes to complement this fairly conventional story.
Set in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, over the course of one July day in 1885, “Death and Nightingales” is told from the perspective of 23-year-old Beth Winters (Skelly), stepdaughter to Billy Winters (Rhys), owner of the Clonuala estate where they both live. Three hundred years and six generations ago, Billy’s Protestant, British family helped invade and colonize Ireland, and used fur pelts stolen from the French to secure their fortune in gold. Since then, Billy’s family has served as landlords for the land around Clonuala, and he also owns the local rock quarry, from which practically everyone in the area—including Roman Catholic Bishop Jimmy Donnelly (Seán McGinley), on the other side of the religious divide as Billy—has to buy their stone. Billy seems to hate this place, but it’s also sustained his wealth, which has made him stingy, demanding, and cruel. And while he tells Beth that he loves her, some of the ways in which Billy acts upon that love are not how a stepfather should behave with his daughter.
Beth, for her part, loathes Billy; Skelly radiates that hatred through her aggressive body language, all unblinking stares, set jaw, and raised chin. She hates how Billy abused her Catholic, Irish mother (Valene Kane) before her death; she hates how Billy has transformed her into a workhorse by looming her potential inheritance over her head. While he gets blackout drunk nearly every night (and some days), she tends to their cows and other animals, she cleans and helps cook, she churns butter and helps her maid Mercy (Charlene McKenna), one of the estate’s few workers. Why should Billy hire another person when Beth is there? It’s not like she’s his biological daughter. If she wants to stay, she has to earn her place.