‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ review: An elegant meditation of ‘violent faith’

A still from ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

A still from ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

A cook once told me of a black daal that was cooked on slow fire for 24 hours to get the right flavour and that buttery texture. Academy-Award winning Dustin Lance Black’s Under the Banner of Heaven reminds me of that daal.

It is the very definition of slow-burn with a satisfying pay-off at the end of the show. Does it get bogged down with a ton of exposition and detours into history lessons? It most certainly does. On the plus side however, is a luminescent performance by Andrew Garfield as the detective in charge of the investigation, Jeb Pyre.

The fact that Jeb is grappling with his faith adds an interesting tang to the mix. Sam Worthington, who unfortunately has been ill-served by all his big-ticket appearances, presents an arresting foil to Garfield. Based on Jon Krakauer’s excellent, eponymous non-fiction book, the mini-series follows two timelines: the murder of Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old baby, Erica, in 1984 and the history of Mormonism.

Brenda’s husband, Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle) is initially suspected and arrested for the murder. Allen strenuously denies the charges, insisting that random bearded men were responsible. The Laffertys are respected members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). When Allen says he is no more part of LDS, Pyre, who is a devout member of the church, is distraught.

While the Laffertys present themselves as a happy, devout family, with the forward-thinking Brenda blamed for creating schisms, flashbacks reveal the cracks had already begun to appear. When the patriarch Ammon (Christopher Heyerdahl) and his wife Doreen (Megan Leitch) have to leave for a two-year assignment to Louisiana, Ammon chooses his younger sons, Dan (Wyatt Russell) and Robin (Seth Numrich) instead of his eldest son Ron (Worthington) to take over his business and position as head of the family in his absence.

There is no question of Ammon’s horridness as he kills Ron’s dog with a baseball bat for not completing his chores. The family business runs into financial difficulties. Unable to pay the taxes, Dan and Robin become tax protesters. There is also Dan’s decision to take his under-age step-daughters as plural wives, and Ron’s abuse of his wife that put the Laffertys at odds with the law.   

Under the Banner of Heaven
Episodes: 7
Creator: Dustin Lance Black
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Denise Gough, Wyatt Russell, Billy Howle, Chloe Pirrie, Seth Numrich, Adelaide Clemens, Rory Culkin, Sandra Seacat, Gil Birmingham
Storyline: A young woman and her baby are murdered and the detective must solve a case that causes him to question his faith

As the investigation progresses, we are simultaneously taken back in time to the 1830s and the life of Joseph Smith (Andrew Burnap), the founder and first prophet of the LDS movement, and the tensions between the State and LDS, which often ended in violence.

Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), Pyre’s second-in-command and counter foil, describes himself as “a zealot in the church of caffeine.” A Paiute Indian, Taba sets the record straight on the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre. Side-by-side with the investigation, Pyre has to deal with his mother, Josie’s (Sandra Seacat) dementia and his wife’s unhappiness over postponing his daughters’ baptism till the case is solved.  

Both the time lines are lovingly recreated. Beautifully acted, Under the banner of Heaven is an elegant meditation of “violent faith” (the tagline of Krakauer’s book). Blessed are the patient for theirs shall be the kingdom of gripping content.

Under the Banner of Heaven is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2022 2:05:43 am |