Major spoilers ahead, for those waiting to see the show on HBO in the fall.
The specter of "Downton Abbey" has been present in the run up to the broadcast of BBC and HBO's new period drama "Parade's End," which aired its first episode in the UK last night (it'll come to the US cable network in the near future, though no exact date has been confirmed yet). Both are lavish period tales in the run up to, midst and aftermath of the first world war, and the star of the latter, Benedict Cumberbatch, didn't help matters much when he labelled the second season of 'Downton' "fucking atrocious" in a recent interview.
In fact, the comparisons are a little overblown. 'Downton' and "Parade's End" (an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's cycle of novels, often labelled as among the finest literary achievements of the 20th century, written for the screen by the great Sir Tom Stoppard, and directed by Susanna White, who was also behind "Bleak House" and "Generation Kill") might share a loose genre, but on the strength of the first episode, they couldn't be more different — 'Downton' is a soap, for better or worse, while "Parade's End" is a fearsomely intelligent, deceptively funny epic that, if it can keep up this level of quality, will likely be one of the best things on television all year.
Things begin in Paris in 1908, as the soon-to-be-married Sylvia (a phenomenal Rebecca Hall) romps with a married lover (Jack Huston, of "Boardwalk Empire"), even as her fiance Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch), a buttoned-down government statistician, and younger brother of an aristocratic family, leaves London, telling his best friend Macmaster (Stephen Graham) that he "doesn't even know if the baby's mine."
Clearly, it's something of a shotgun wedding, and both seem a little reluctant; she refers to her future husband as "that ox," and Tietjen's brother Mark (Rupert Everett) tells him he's been "trapped by that papist bitch." But married they nevertheless are (probably pushed through by Tietjens remembering their first encounter, fucking on a train within moments of meeting), and three years later, they're back in London, with their son Michael having nightmares. Christopher clearly adores the boy, Sylvia barely acknowledges him (we're not sure they interacted once in the episode), instead focusing her attentions on winding up her husband and mother (recent Oscar nominee Janet McTeer), and the latest in a long string of lovers, Potty Perowne (Tom Mison).
Sylvia admits that she's desperate for her husband to notice her dalliances (telling a friend that "I want to shake him"), and soon he does exactly that, as she leaves for France with Potty. Heartbroken, Christopher sends his son to live with his sister, and goes with McMasters (an aspiring writer and critic) to play golf in the countryside with some society high-ups, including General Campion (Roger Allam) and government minister Waterhouse (Tim McMullan).
The course is raided by a pair of suffragettes, including Valentine Wannop (Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, the successful product of an attempt to simultaneously clone Carey Mulligan and Abbie Cornish), who turns out to be the daughter of a friend of Christopher's father. He aids in their getaway, clearly intrigued by her, and later meets her at the house of a demented rector (Rufus Sewell, in a lovely, against-type cameo), whose wife (Anne-Marie Duff) Macmasters is enamored of.
Rumors are already flying that something is going on between Tietjens and Valentine, although they barely know each other, but even if Christopher didn't pledge that he "stands for monogamy and chastity," his wife, having dumped her lover (who ineffectually threatens her with a revolver, to an entirely nonplussed reaction from Hall), has asked to return. He's acquiesced, but nevertheless, Tietjens and Valentine fall in love over the course of a foggy, all-night carriage ride, although stop just short of kissing.
But their idyll is interrupted when General Campion hits their horse with his car (presumably something of a metaphor for the coming of technology, not least the First World War, which already haunts proceedings). Left alone with the horse, faced with the return of a wife who's vowed to "torment" him, and unable to be with the person he'd really like to be with, Tietjens finally lets his repressed mask slip, and breaks down in tears.
Moving like a thundering train, it's an awful lot of plot to get through in 60 minutes, and it's certainly uncompromising in its refusal to hold the audience's hand. But for the most part (there's one moment of clunky expositiong, and a couple of minor storytelling blips — we had to look at the credits to work out that 'Hullo Central' was the name of Sylvia's maid, which turns out to be fairly important), Stoppard's script is tremendous — clear, unhurried, yet pacy, and eminently quotable.
And it's unashamedly intellectual stuff, too; one can't imagine long rants about sex in Latin (courtesy of Sewell), discussion of reforms of the House of Lords, or the poetry of Rosetti in 'Downton.' But it's also compelling, gripping stuff, with the central duo of Christopher and Sylvia being fascinating characters we can't wait to see more of.
In no small part, that's down to the central performances from Cumberbatch and Hall, which so far look like they might be the actors' finest hours to date. The "Sherlock" star has played this kind of thing — repressed, buttoned-down, not terribly happy — many times before, but he gets to find all kinds of texture in this part, giving real humanity (especially in his late-night drunken confession to Macmasters) and soul to a character that could come across as a bit of a prig. Hall has the meatiest part, and tears into it like a wild animal; as a flighty femme fatale who knows she has every man she meets wrapped around her little finger, she's enormous fun, but crucially, she isn't an out-and-out villain. She might do some abominable things, but you can understand the psychology behind it, so far at least.
Among the supporting cast, Stephen Graham (better known for less refined types in the likes of "Snatch" and "This Is England") is the particular stand-out; cast well against type as the social-climbing, would-be-intellectual Macmasters, he's clearly very fond of his friend, but certainly displays a degree of ambition that may cause ruptures down the line. Clemens' part is, so far, a touch thinner than the others, but the relative newcomer does a lot with it, and the camera adores her. There are a couple of actors who seemed to struggle with the period dialogue a little — Jack Huston's early cameo didn't quite scan. But for the most part, it's an impressive assembly of talent.
On the basis of this first episode, it may not be the giant popular hit that BBC and HBO hope it'll be; it's more raw, less welcoming and a little more acerbic than most period dramas. But with war coming, we're looking forward to seeing how things develop, and we're going to be covering the remaining four episodes here every week. [A-]
Bits & Pieces
– We have to confess, we've never quite gotten round to tackling the novels. Are there any of you who are fans of the source material? How did the adaptation match up?
– Director Susanna White (who recently made her feature debut with "Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang," and was one of the names in early discussions to direct "The Hunger Games" before Gary Ross got involved ) does an excellent job here. It's undeniably handsome stuff, but not staid; an early flashback featuring whip-pans and dutch angles indicates this isn't going to be your average TV costume drama.
– We feel that we haven't talked enough about how funny it was, but Stoppard's script was in places very funny. The cutaway to see Hall sitting near her mother and the priest as they talk about her is an old one, but a good one.
– It's unusual to see a political conservative (Tietjens describes himself as "the last Tory") portrayed so sympathetically. Stoppard has a reputation (which we're not sure is entirely earned) as one of the more right-wing writers of the 20th century, so we're interested to see how much this continues to develop.
– One slightly sour note; we weren't great fans of the score, by Dirk Brosse ("Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," "The Good Thief"), which signalled every shift into lighter territory by bringing out the plinky-plonky piano.
– We were however fans of the kaleidoscope credit sequence which was classy and innovative.