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There is so much to love and so much to be confused by in the five-part miniseries Parade’s End, which HBO partnered with the BBC in helping bring to life. It’s based on a series of books by Ford Madox Ford that have been called “impenetrable” — even by the English whose history and class structures are at the center of it — but are given a thorough and engaging awakening by acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard (Anna Karenina, Shakespeare in Love). Stoppard, who refuses to make things comprehensibly easy (at once a good and bad decision), is helped immensely by the fact that director Susanna White (Generation Kill) succeeds in making the series lush and gorgeous.
The end result is a kind of higher-brow Downton Abbey (covering similar themes of class structure, entitlement, British resistance to change and how the onset of World War I erased so much of that). It’s less soapy than Downton but also less successfully structured, more insularly British and far less interested in pandering — which in turn might make it substantially less popular with American audiences.
But Parade’s End has brilliant acting performances, topped by the duo of Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens, an uptight aristocrat, and Rebecca Hall, luminous as his socialite wife, Sylvia. She is anything but uptight as she revels in her sexuality, privilege and masterful cruelty. And just watching Cumberbatch and Hall ply their craft is worth any stumbling blocks that Parade’s End throws at the viewer.
The difficulties for viewers are in grasping Christopher’s unbending nature as he endures the perils of being married to Sylvia. This is the crux of the miniseries and explained clearly only twice — somewhere near the beginning and somewhere near the end. He marries Sylvia when she’s pregnant — though it’s clear to Christopher that it’s not his child. (Sylvia, open about sleeping with another man, is keen to tell herself she really doesn’t know whose it is, though much of her resentment — and there’s a lot of it — toward Christopher is that he was noble enough to marry her anyway.) This all leads Sylvia, so simultaneously deliciously evil, magnetic and engaging, to have whatever affairs she pleases, all in front of Christopher, who seems more interested in correcting mistakes in the margins of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Why does he endure this? Because the upper class in England — as Downton Abbey fans surely will know — always is proper because it’s expected. It’s this “parade,” putting on airs and clinging to tradition, that Christopher believes he must participate in, though it might better be described as a “charade.”
This is the oh-so-English part of Parade’s End that makes it maddening. Compared to Christopher’s piousness, Matthew and Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey look like uncultured peasants without a moral code. Credit Cumberbatch for making Christopher’s unrelenting sacrifices interesting rather than a dull man’s dull decisions. He’s obviously hurt deeply by Sylvia’s cavalier behavior, but he suffers stoicly (not so much with a stiff upper lip but a quivering lower one and moist eyes). This only infuriates Sylvia, who wants him to be human (as viewers might, too). This last-honorable-man-in-England thing takes most of Parade’s End to finally unravel, even though we see early on that a spirited young suffragette named Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens, also superb here) is falling for him (and, ever so slowly, vice versa).
Parade’s End moves from the wide, green English countryside to Germany, France and London. And, yes, there are Downton-like estates and large drawing rooms where the upper class have every need served by those from downstairs. One of the series’ most memorable scenes is a fog-shrouded horse-and-carriage trip between Christopher and Valentine in the countryside that’s ethereal and dreamlike — until it’s not. The costuming here is elaborate and beautiful, and Hall’s beauty is framed like a painting in every scene.
World War I begins to change everyone’s lives, of course. Christopher goes to the front mostly because his staunch adherence to old-world values has made him a derided figure in society and his brilliance in the Department of Imperial Statistics — he proved that war was coming and the country wasn’t ready — has made him enemies in the government’s bureaucracy. Hell, with no one understanding him, Christopher figures he might as well die in the service of his country.
It’s only at this point, in the fourth of five episodes, that a general — as confounded by his choices as viewers might be — asks why he hasn’t just divorced Sylvia. “There is what used to be, among families of position, a certain, call it, parade,” Christopher tells the general. To which the general replies: “Was there. Well, there are no more parades for that regiment. It held out to the last man. But you were him.”
There is only minor closure and perhaps not maximum, Downton-like audience satisfaction at the end of Parade’s End. Stoppard’s storytelling structure has an odd rhythm to it, and White’s direction can be both majestically beautiful and transitionally jarring. But combined, their choices allow Parade’s End to achieve an exquisiteness, a sense of high art.
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