After five extraordinary episodes, the BBC/HBO miniseries produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Sir Tom Stoppard has screened in its entirety in the UK. Moving from the demise of Edwardian England, through the horror of the First World War, and the hope for a better future, the drama tells of the love triangle between Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), his adulterous wife (Rebecca Hall) and a young suffragette (Adelaide Clemens).
Read on for our full review of the entire series, but please note it does contain mild spoilers.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens.
The greatest sense you take away from the series is that of an evolution, both in its participants and the world they inhabit. Christopher Tietjens is very much the last of his kind, even when the series begins; an intellectual who can summon verse and compose sonnets under duress, and by the close his own growth away from his norms and values becomes a necessity, both due to his desires, the actions of others, and the seismic shifts in the wider world. From his strict, self sacrificing yet incredibly warm introduction, you get the sense of a man desperately trying to hold onto the past and his honour - the ‘Parade’ that forms the title and is referenced numerous times throughout the duration. The degree that this nobility verges on is sometimes absurd, and arguably even a form of mental self abuse at times. By the time that war is declared -a conflict Christopher has been predicting for years - he sees the chance to enlist as an escape while also an opportunity to retain his nobility - after all, there is no greater calling than serving one’s country. Instead though, instead of escaping the growing clerical buffoonery he faced at home he is instead plunged even deeper into it, unsafely sheltered in an administrative role that forces him to deal with the requisition of fire extinguishers and organising the draft of men whose destination is unknown even hours before their departure. Benedict’s portrayal of a man under fire from all sides, be it German ordnance or the emotional fall out of his tangled, whispered about love life, is impeccable throughout, quite possibly the greatest performance he has given thus far, being both chilly but warm, buttoned up yet fracturing. By the time he finds himself redeployed to the Front in the final episode, a spiritually broken man rises up into an exceptional commanding officer - one that in a final, decisive moment under fire forges the bonds with his soldiers irrevocably and with complete decency.
Rebecca Hall as Sylvia Tietjens.
If there’s one true standout performance in a series built from standout performances, it’s arguably Rebecca Hall. Quite fearless, she makes Sylvia by turns hateful, sympathetic, vulnerable, spiteful and honest, a woman bound by religion and social graces but not afraid to openly mock them. While initially focused solely on provoking her husband, both through affairs and her general behaviour in his company, she begins to soften towards him and starts to display an increasing sense of nobility towards Christopher, laughing off and even defending him against increasing rumours with an air of incredulity due to her own inability to stir him - and of course, all in ironic contrast to her own actions. But her discovery of Valentine Wannop provokes an unexpected reaction in herself, causing genuine upset, anger and disbelief. At times she displays barely restrained fury at events, bubbling with an undercurrent of selfishness that rears up despite her outward appearance. With suitable absurdity, she begins to want her husband to act like her when the chance is right in front of him just to see any form of passion from him, even though it would not be directed towards her. Later, having exposed her vulnerability and honesty while visiting Christopher in France, she reverts to bad habits after the possibility of redemption. Culminating in the destruction of the Groby Tree, a final symbolic act of childish spite that destroys his traditions and surpasses all else that she has done, it’s a calculated and desperate final play to provoke a reaction, no matter how small it may end up being - and oddly, she succeeds, as Christopher makes his final choice between her and her rival.
Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop.
Which in turn brings us nicely to the final part of the trinity - Valentine Wannop, as portrayed by Adelaide Clemens. After her sparkling introduction and the subsequent, highly charged trip with Christopher in the first hour, she later becomes more tightly embroiled in the militant aspects of the suffragette movement. In perhaps the most crucial scene for the character, Tom Stoppard’s script inserts her as fictional witness to one of the most famous real-world moments of the campaign for women’s rights on March 10 1914 at the National Gallery - the slashing of the Rokeby Venus by Mary Richardson, an event absent from the book entirely. This reveals an intriguing reaction from Valentine, one of admiration and respect of great art that others find offensive and indicative of all they are fighting against, which later evolves into a striking and impactful visual moment where she sees herself as the figure in the painting, revealing her true appreciation of beauty coupled with the burgeoning desire and sensuality that lie in her heart. Adelaide is often allowed to let loose emotionally in the series, at times revealing the lack of knowledge her character has about her own sexual biology that fundamentally marks her out as a child in many aspects, but is also emblematic of the need to balance the sexes. This in turn shapes her once women have won the vote, expanding to a wider intent for an expansion of women’s knowledge and control over their own bodies. Valentine thus remains a character of contrasts throughout the series, ostensibly completely opposed to Christopher and his worldview but drawn to him through their mutual intelligence and spark - a literal example of opposites attracting. Adelaide Clemens handles this gently complex character with consummate skill, her inherent intelligence but also total desperation for the man she loves forming a tricky, countering balancing act.
The cast is rounded out with a broad range of characters, from the flawed aspirations of Macmaster (Stephen Graham), the comedic bluster of General Campion (Roger Allam) the fragile and eventually spiteful Edith (Anne Marie Duff) and her unbalanced husband (Rufus Sewell), to the kindness of Valentine’s mother (Miranda Richardson), the class obsessed yet respectful tone of Sylvia’s mother (Janet McTeer) and of course the initially harsh and joshing, but eventually warm, and finally broken form of Mark Tietjens (Rupert Everett). All bring different facets and colour to this world, portraying distinct elements of the era that avoid archetypes while forming a rounded portrait of the death of Edwardian England. Each character ends up differently from where we first encounter them, for good or ill.
From clockwise top left: Stephen Graham as Macmaster, Anne Marie Duff as Edith Duchermin, Roger Allam as General Campion, Rufus Sewell as Reverend Duchemin.
Technically, the series is almost flawless. Susanna White’s direction is measured and direct with bursts of artistic flair, capturing the rolling Yorkshire hills of the opening hour and the shattered, brittle landscape of No Man’s Land in the last with equal assurance. Moments of combat and violence in the later hours are directed with an intimate terror, their impactful suddenness standing in contrast to the sparkling social comedy that may intercut them. The most striking visual motif she uses are the kaleidoscopic, vorticist angles on shots in the opening credits and in the flashback sequences. Initially surprising, it becomes clear that they are used to represent Christopher’s memories, be they the first encounter with Sylvia in a train carriage or a near-passionate moment with Valentine in the fog, with the fracturing, twisting angles of the shots indicating his state of mind.
Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the source material is faithful but also surgical, deftly cutting through much of the prose of the book to find the true meat of the four novels that form the singular work. For basic reference, he has transformed the first book (Some Do Not…) into the first three episodes, the second book (No More Parades)into the fourth episode and the third book (A Man Could Stand Up) into the fifth, while completely ignoring the narrative of the fourth book (Last Post) entirely. He has omitted much of the bulk of the piece, focusing solely on important narrative events and then trimming them down to specific character beats, jettisoning much of the introspection while retaining Ford Madox Ford’s dialogue. In addition, the chronology of the novel has been rearranged from the page, with events being shown as they occur, rather than recounted afterwards by the characters. He also arguably makes Christopher more sympathetic and Sylvia more spiteful than on the page, with her role sizably increased.
From clockwise top left: Miranda Richardson as Mrs Wannop, Janet McTeer as Mrs. Satterthwaite, Rupert Everett as Mark Tietjens, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens.
As a whole, the most striking thing about Parade’s End are the tonal shifts that occur between each hour, rather than within the hour. The first episode is simultaneously an introduction, hugely romantic, and very, very funny. The second shifts more to a character piece, expanding upon elements established in the first. The third is pure, emotional drama, tinged with tragedy but also hugely pumping up the romantic angle, which is in turn absent in the fourth episode, replaced instead with a return to the humour that marked the opener, but here reconfigured into pitch black. And the final, fifth episode combines all elements, with the addition of a remarkable depiction of the combat of the First World War, before settling into tying off all the narrative threads and putting these characters to bed - in some cases, quite literally.
There are other concerns bubbling beneath the surface too, aside from the romance. There is a constant contrast between the social status of the characters, with some, like Macmaster and Mrs desperately clawing to reach a standard of living that matches that of the Tietjens family - one that Christopher is at times all too happy to abandon. The final moments of the series sum this up beautifully, with Macmaster and Christopher, now separated by experience and the war briefly greeting each other from across the street, wordlessly separated by glass. Christopher has found solace and companionship in those he has fought alongside, a bond that transcends class, while Macmaster has strived to reach Christopher’s level since the very beginning. Their roles are now somewhat reversed, but from these final moments it is all too clear whose life is now the richer.
Indeed, by this final moving scene, there is a distinct sense of sadness that this remarkable mini-series has ended so soon. With its complex, well drawn characterisation, superb writing and focused direction, we’ve easily seen one of the best dramas of the year. Parade’s End is ultimately a story of a time lost, complete with its values and symbolism, to the onward march of technology and consumerism. Framing the First World War makes this crystal clear, and the themes of love and the emergence of friendship through shared adversity, rather than a hunger for success and wealth, makes this both an evocation of an age long past but also one of remarkable prescience for the world as it is today.
Parade’s End has yet to officially announce a broadcast in the United States, but is rumoured to screen on HBO in early 2013.
Parade’s End will be released on DVD and Blu Ray in the UK on October 8 2012.
The DVD is encoded for Region 2 [UK, Europe] and Region 4 (Australia, New Zealand) and while the Blu Ray will likely be region free it will be subject to 1080i 50hz encoding, which renders the disc unplayable on NTSC based players from Panasonic and Sony, including the Playstation 3, in regions including the United States. We recommend checking your player manual or your player model on Google for compatibility before ordering.
It’s also worth considering that any future home video release in the United States will be handled by HBO, and has every possibility of featuring additional extra features from the UK release.
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