With a first episode that is powerful, moving and unexpectedly funny, coupled with fantastic performances from the trinity of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall and newcomer Adelaide Clemens - plus an extraordinary supporting cast - the five part BBC/HBO Mini-Series ‘Parade’s End’ looks to be one of the must-see television dramas of 2012.
Please note that while this review does not contain plot spoilers aside from the initial synopsis, characterisation, performances and thematic material are discussed in depth.
Based upon the four novel series by Ford Madox Ford, published between 1924 and 1928, Parade’s End has been adapted for television by Sir Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are Dead) and directed by Susanna White (The 2006 BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre, HBO’s Generation Kill). A non-linear narrative that begins a few years before the start of the First World War, the series tells the story of Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), a civil servant who becomes embroiled in a love triangle with his adulterous wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), and Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a young suffragette.
Superlatives may have become par for the course regarding a Benedict Cumberbatch performance, but they are once again unavoidable. In his portrayal of Christopher, Benedict gives us a character of great strength and buried emotion. A man of honour, humility and chivalry to a fault, he is an intellectual who corrects material in books in the margins and can recite literature from memory with ease – leading to a poignant moment of great impact later in the episode. Yet he could be considered so buttoned up that he is boring – behaviour that causes extreme reactions from his wife Sylvia. In marked contrast to her though, he is good hearted and empathises with both man and beast, always concerned with the welfare of innocents beyond the point of self sacrifice. With a rich, deep and almost plumy accent, coupled with an oddly downturned tight smile and padded cheeks to fatten his face, his appearance is markedly different from his other roles. All of these elements suggest a weak character to our modern eyes at first glance, but he is in fact highly attractive and an intriguing protagonist.
In marked contrast, Christopher’s wife Sylvia is the complete opposite of her husband. Rebecca Hall is given a rather difficult task portraying this frustrated, malicious and attention seeking woman, forever trying to chip through Christopher’s skin to provoke some kind of reaction from her behaviour. Endlessly trying to shock those around her, she nonetheless needs the security of a husband to allow her continued existence, despite the scandal she forever tries to stir. Rebecca imbues Sylvia with a carefree air, but is never intent on gaining our empathy as an audience, at least not yet.
Forming the final part of the triangle, Adelaide Clemens plays Valentine Wannop with a great mixture of heart and will. As a young suffragette, campaigning for the improvement of women’s rights in Britain at the turn of the century, Adelaide first encounters Christopher in an unexpected manner, before events conspire to bring them closer together during the opening episode. An intellectual match for him, her dedication to the suffragette’s cause mirrors Christopher’s own self sacrifice, but for completely different reasons. That the pair should be attracted to each other is one of the most fascinating and complex aspects of this material.
Note must also be made of the frankly incredible supporting cast in the series, boasting both familiar faces in smaller roles and relative unknowns that leave an indelible mark. Among those recognisable actors, Roger Allam is a complete delight as General Campion, reuniting with Benedict - his Cabin Pressure co-star – in a few brief scenes that betray the absurdist social graces of the era. Stephen Graham makes a huge impression as Christopher’s colleague Vincent Macmaster, being both ostensibly lower class but also obtaining far more credit for his work than Christopher ever seems to. Rupert Everett appears briefly in this first episode as Christopher’s elder brother, effectively deploying some stinging barbs at his sibling. And a broadly comic breakfast scene features Miranda Richardson and Rufus Sewell, both making full use of the material they have been given.
Indeed, Parade’s End is actually far, far more humourous than ever expected. Sir Tom Stoppard’s dramatic, emotive and comedic script is an absolute gift, featuring a focus on the now outdated social manoeuvring of the era and the tangled web of interactions that arise. The period is evoked beautifully, replete with the attendant nosiness, social graces and behaviour that are on the cusp of disappearing. The dialogue is delicious, being both modernistic and old fashioned all at once. Much of the comedy comes from the actor’s performances, both through their readings and reactions, as well as some gentle farce and pratfalls. The material is extraordinarily rich thanks to all these elements, as well as the looming but not overwhelming spectre of war that is only briefly mentioned in passing in this first episode. All of this will doubtless see Parade’s End placed in direct contrast to other popular series like Downton Abbey, but by Tom Stoppard’s own admission the script for the final episode of the mini-series was delivered in 2009, a year before the first broadcast of that series. And arguably, the tonal differences, intelligence and dense, complex nature of this material completely eclipse that of Downton Abbey.
Visually, Parade’s End is stunning. Apart from a few moments, it is shot with a minimum of stylistic flash, relying instead on beautiful landscapes and production design to produce an epic sweep. Richly colourful, the series is also effective at using invisible visual effects to recreate real locations in their past incarnations – an early appearance by the period Victoria Station is a notable highlight, presenting the now weathered entrance as gleaming and new before the waiting steam engines on the platforms. Coupled with a simple, beautiful score, Parade’s End is a ravishing looking series, and brief clips shown of later episodes reveal an epic, evocative recreation of the trenches of the First World War.
Finally, and most critically, this is an extremely romantic work, the chaste nature of Christopher and Valentine’s interactions in stark comparison to Sylvia’s behaviour. At its heart, this is a story of a lost period of society, where repression in all its forms was the norm, and it is also a world of stark contrasts that many would have chosen to ignore. The notion that a buttoned up man and a campaigning woman can hold such latent passion is fascinating, that those under the opposing forces of self repression and societal repression can be attracted to the other all the more so. Christopher is desperate to conform to escape society gossip stemming from his wife’s actions, while Valentine is intent on protest to improve her own place in society, and that of her sex in general. Ultimately, despite their obvious differences, Christopher and Valentine are the opposite sides of the same coin, with Sylvia simply a very bad penny separate from both.
By the close of this beautiful, sweeping first episode we were left hungry for the next instalment. With the hints that the scale, emotion and humour will only increase in later episodes, we simply can’t wait for the full broadcast. Don’t be put off by the period setting if you don’t think it’s your thing – Parade’s End is anchored by frankly superb performances and a script of such density and wit that we hesitate to compare it to other similar period productions, simply as it looks likely to completely surpass them. A hugely romantic piece that will doubtless win legions of new fans for Benedict Cumberbatch and other members of the cast, it comes with our highest recommendation.
Parade’s End is currently scheduled to broadcast in the UK on BBC Two in late August and September. International broadcast dates, including HBO in the United States, are yet to be announced.
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