1923 review: Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren lead intriguing Yellowstone prequel

Taylor Sheridan, one of television's prominent super-producers, is known for his love of grandeur. With an impressive roster of shows, he explores themes such as generational inheritance, the preservation of land and family, and the defense of hard-earned values. His most successful creation, Paramount's Yellowstone, is America's second most-watched TV show, right after NFL football. However, it is unjust to label it simply as a "red-state show" or a "Republican Succession" due to its complex and nuanced politics.

Instead, Yellowstone can be seen as a soap opera centered around property rights, involving conflicts between the Dutton family, Native Americans, and coastal elites who threaten a pastoral way of life through land development.

Sheridan's latest project, a star-studded Yellowstone prequel called 1923, delves into the past, capturing the era between the two world wars and the Great Depression. It serves as a bridge between the previous limited series, 1883, and Kevin Costner's character in the present.

The show immediately establishes its epic sensibilities, with Elsa Dutton (played by Isabel May), the fiery daughter of the Dutton ancestors, John and Margaret (portrayed by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill), mentioning the haunting presence of violence within her family. The premiere episode introduces various unidentified characters, setting the stage for a story that will likely involve power struggles against the backdrop of stunning mountain vistas.

Ben Richardson, who has worked with Sheridan on previous projects, including Yellowstone, expertly captures the beauty of the landscapes, showcasing the African savanna alongside the American West.

One storyline takes place in Kenya, where Jacob's nephew, Spencer (Brandon Sklenar), hunts big game to escape his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from World War I. Meanwhile, back in the United States, Jacob (played by the legendary Harrison Ford in his first major TV role at 80) confronts local discontent and mismanagement of the land. Sheridan's storytelling prowess shines as he infuses land rights disputes with emotional weight, making them accessible and impactful.

One such dispute between Jacob and English American shepherd Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn) revolves around the boundaries of grazing lands and addresses the morally significant issue of starvation among sheep. Ford's portrayal of Jacob as a morally upright patriarch is compelling, and Mirren, despite limited screen time, brings depth to her role as Cara Dutton.

The premiere also introduces a significant and troubling plotline involving a Catholic-led school for Indigenous girls, highlighting the harsh treatment suffered by the students at the hands of sadistic nuns and clergymen. While the show's handling of this sensitive subject raises concerns about the portrayal of violence against Indigenous characters, Aminah Nieves's performance as Teonna offers hope and strength in the face of adversity.

It is challenging to fully evaluate 1923 based on just one episode, but the premiere sets the stage for an epic narrative filled with promising storylines, breathtaking scenery, and compelling characters. Although it lacks specificity in terms of emotions, the premiere leaves viewers with a sense of the show's grand ambitions. If you appreciate the talents of Ford and Mirren, two esteemed actors in their later years, there are plenty of reasons to continue watching this anticipated prequel. 1923 will premiere on Paramount+ on December 18 in the US and on December 19 in the UK.

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