With its pouty star, competitors don't have a prayer

Preview: `Joan of Arc' is armored and dangerous.

May 15, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

She's an illiterate teen-age runaway who hears voices and has visions. She also has a lot of unresolved gender issues.

Sounds like just the gal I want leading my troops into battle against a British occupying army.

But there you are. She did all right for the French some 550 years ago -- before getting burned at the stake, that is. The French handed over control of the military to 16-year-old Joan d'Arc, a peasant girl who claimed to be in constant conversation with a couple of Catholic saints, and, what do you know, a few years later, the British are gone and France is reunited. And you thought Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, was tough.

If you want an old-fashioned, big-event, network miniseries, "Joan of Arc," airing tomorrow and Tuesday nights on CBS, is for you. It has battles, blood and a budget of $25 million. It has a huge cast with such big names as Peter O'Toole, Olympia Dukakis, Jacqueline Bisset, Maximilian Schell, Powers Boothe, Shirley MacLaine and Mr. Old Fashioned Big Budget Miniseries Himself, Peter ("Rich Man, Poor Man") Strauss.

But the biggest star is Leelee Sobieski ("A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries"), a 16-year-old who looks more like a young Helen Hunt than Helen Hunt. She seems to be in every frame of the four-hour mini-series. You wonder how the WB network ever missed this one. Is it too late to get on the fall schedule with "Joannie, the Brit Slayer"? I want a piece of the merchandising action for the Joannie Suits of Armor line of original fashions.

I mock, because CBS' "Joan of Arc" deserves a bit of mocking for such nutty poetic license as giving its Joan a schoolgirl crush on a young nobleman, Jean de Metz (Chad Willett). If only she weren't so busy saving France and defending herself against charges of heresy, what a beautiful couple they would have made. There's also some excess in performance -- Sobieski playing Joan with a tiresome pout, while Powers Boothe plays her domineering father, Jacques, as if he were back doing Jim Jones and this was 20th century Guyana instead of 15th century France.

But, beyond such matters, "Joan of Arc" is a commercially smart production with so many cultural hooks that it would be a sure ratings hit were it not up against ABC's "Double Platinum," which features another teen heroine, Brandy, along with Diana Ross, who has not yet been declared a saint but whose career is definitely the stuff of legend.

Many viewers, I suspect, will find the religious fervor of "Joan" appealing. From the staying power of "Touched By an Angel" to the recent ratings success of "Noah's Ark," it appears that viewers want prime-time TV to speak to matters of the spirit with a God who has a speaking part. "Joan" never questions for a moment that Sts. Michael and Catherine spoke to Joan. This miniseries really believes.

Like "Elizabeth" and "Shakespeare in Love," this production also puts modern sensibilities in period costumes. While it might make scholars shudder, much of the public seems to like its history tricked out this way -- especially if it features a young woman with feminist sensibilities, as improbable as that might have been. In "Joan," it's Girl Power Meets the Hundred Years War. All that's missing is a soundtrack from the Indigo Girls.

In the end, the biggest appeal might be the action-adventure narrative featuring Joan on a kind of hero quest that ends in mythic transformation. Throw in arresting performances by O'Toole as the conflicted cleric who leads Joan to the stake and Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser, M.D.") as the strange, young king who betrays her, and it is not a bad package in terms of entertainment.

Joan of Arc meets Doogie Howser on the hero quest. Network "sweeps" television, isn't it wonderful?

`Joan of Arc'

When: 9-11 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday

Where: WJZ (Channel 13) Pub Date: 5/15/99

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