Recap: Benedict Cumberbatch & Rebecca Hall Shine In First 2 Parts Of Period Miniseries ‘Parade’s End’

Recap: Benedict Cumberbatch & Rebecca Hall Shine In First 2 Parts Of Period Miniseries 'Parade's End'

This is an edited reprint of our coverage from the UK airing last year. Major spoilers ahead, for those who haven’t yet watched the HBO broadcast.

Recap: Episode 1

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.” Both are lavish period tales set before, during and after World War I. But 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 McMaster (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 turn), whose wife (Anne-Marie Duff) Macmaster 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 World War I, 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 Macmaster) 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 players, 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 Macmaster, 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 and Jack Huston‘s early cameo didn’t quite scan. But for the most part, it’s an impressive assembly of talent. [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.

Recap: Episode 2

Parade’s End” has already proven divisive. It’s been widely praised by the punditry, but many viewers have expressed frustration with its wilfully muddled structure (apparently a hangover from the even more chronologically confusing books), in which events separated by years and sometimes countries crash together as though occupying contiguous spaces. It doesn’t help, say these critics, that these events then unfold with a minimum of helpful backstory, and little contextualisation, so we drop in mid-conversation or catch mere glimpses of relevant newspaper headlines or have to tell simply by the fact that this minor character is talking to this other minor character, that Something Is Up. It’s challenging for the viewer, and within the genre of the costume drama, which is frequently reduced to who-is-shagging-whom-oh-look-at-that-pretty-hat throughlines, that can be offputting.

It can also be rewarding. There’s no doubt that you don’t so much enjoy “Parade’s End” as earn enjoyment from it, if that makes sense, and scene-by-scene it can hover perilously near the boredom threshold. Yet somehow the entirety, for those who can be arsed, compels on a macro level; it’s a trick similar to that pulled off by the peerless “The Wire,” that drew us in by engaging our brains, and that engaged our brains by not ever forgetting we had them. “Parade’s End” is no ‘Wire’ but it’s thoughtful, well-made, witty television that leaves space for the viewer’s intelligence.

In this regard, this second episode will not convert detractors, but what it may do is tip those of us who were perhaps intrigued but unconvinced, off our fences. And so with the small proviso that this writer was slightly less enamored of the first episode than our previous recappist, (probably would have put it at a B or a B+), let’s get on with dissecting the second of its five episodes, shall we?

Despite his cuckolding, Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) has arrived in Germany following the one-word summons (“Righto”) from estranged wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), to discover that his aging mother has passed away. From the outset, this episode is going to give us a different side of Sylvia: we see it in practically the first shot of her. There’s actual sympathy there when she breaks the news to him, but his subsequent coldness even in the shock of grief sees her resort to her old petulance, trying to shock him by announcing that it was either her leaving him or her coming back to him that caused his mother’s death. Tietjens retorts, in the first of the episode’s many gorgeous, acerbic, bitten-off rebuffs “She died of a medical condition, not a literary convention.”

They return to England for the funeral, to which Sylvia  — despite her protestations of chastity, and prior to going off to a retreat at “a convent where they let one bring one’s maid” — wears a scandalously low-cut outfit. It has been a while since we’ve seen that much throat round these parts, though later, you horndogs, Hall will give us even more of an eyeful during a fairly prolonged nude scene. But of course, that scene is anything but exploitative, serving as a wonderful character moment between Sylvia and Tietjens, as well as being, along with the de-bra-ing of Mrs Duchemin, a simple metaphor for this episode’s focus. Because this is the episode where we somewhat leave Tietjens aside in favour of laying our female characters bare.

It’s a shift that brings a very welcome depth to some of the supporting characters who were given rather short shrift in the first episode and it is because of it that this writer can feel “Parade’s End” gently mutating from a well-made but rather unengaging watch, into a much more vital and layered show. Aside from the revelation of Sylvia’s love for her husband (suggesting her tragedy is that she can only love what she cannot have: once love, or even desire, is reciprocated, she will despise her ‘conquest’), we follow a lengthy subplot in which McMasters (God, we love Stephen Graham) consummates his affair with Edith Duchemin (ditto Anne-Marie Duff) the vicar’s wife. In the process, “shooting off like a tomcat in heat” he gets her pregnant, and her reaction reveals a hard, judgemental streak, and a very unromantic sexual pragmatism a million miles away from her previous saintly-wife-of-unhinged-vicar persona. In fact she turns out to be a character infinitely more nuanced and interesting, and yes, a lot nastier, than we had first suspected. In her anguish at her predicament she even lashes out derisively at sweet suffragette Valentine (Adelaide Clemens) who reveals that, much less than knowing how one might go about getting an abortion, she is in fact, ignorant of the very basics of sexual intercourse.

And so Valentine too gets some flesh put on her hitherto bare-bones characterisation. As well as her sexual naivete, we get an idea of her home life with her firebrand brother, and the point at which her political views come into conflict with her aesthetic or personal ones. As such, she is clearly dismayed when a fellow suffragette hacks through a Velasquez painting of a reclining nude (an incident that really did occur), and reacts with tearful disappointment to Edith’s revelation of the carnal nature of her relationship with McMaster. And so suddenly, a great deal of her sweetness is shown to be of a rather pie-eyed variety, her gradual disillusionment with the people around her presumably foreshadowing a choice she will have to make eventually between her pristine idealism and becoming that least-enfranchised of Edwardian women: a mistress.

Even smaller characters than these three get their moment: contrasting the strident, comic-relief role she played in episode 1, here Valentine’s mother (Miranda Richardson) is legitimised somewhat by Tietjen’s faith in her literary abilities, even if she herself feels like more or less a mouthpiece for him. And small details impress too, like Sylvia asking her maid how she was treated after the funeral as a result of her mistress’s antics, and insisting that she “won’t have you emptying chamber pots.” We could wish this was some sort of egalitarian instinct on Sylvia’s part, but it is more an observation on how the status of one’s maid back then reflected very closely on one’s own.

Of course, the clouds of war are gathering, and at the end of this episode the storm breaks, and Tietjens’ Cassandra-like predictions come true, almost to the minute. After resigning his desk job in disgust and volunteering for active service, there is scarcely time for him to incur the displeasure, worry or incomprehension of everyone who cares for him, and have a tender almost-moment beside a fireplace with Miss Wannup, before he is embroiled in the muddy, dismal life-changing misery of WWI trench warfare.

But in case we are not sure who this episode was really about, the last shot is a reprise from earlier of Sylvia on a cliffside watching the fish-eagle, the animal she says she’d “like to come back as.” Some might interpret that as Sylvia’s longing for death, but to this writer, given the themes of the episode, it was about her character with particular regard to men/other people. The fish eagle circles high above, alone and predatory, sending the common gulls below into a frenzy of confusion and panic. It’s partly how Sylvia sees Tietjens — aloof, unruffled, even Valentine mentions wanting to “provoke” him — and partly how Sylvia would like to see herself, but her (better?) nature keeps getting in the way.

Again, the performances are stellar, particularly from Hall whose intelligent presence is here justified by a character whose caprices are gradually revealed to conceal real depth and smarts. Duff, too, is just amazing, her transition from simpering, nervy, silly wifey to tentative adultress to sneering ‘fallen woman’ is an unexpected development that she handles masterfully. Clemens, of the three, again probably has the least to get her teeth into, but does a capable job with a character that promises more in future. Cumberbatch is not so foregrounded, but his work is as precise and illuminating as ever, and Graham, cast against type inasmuch as such a versatile actor could have a type, is just endlessly watchable as McMaster – all id to Tietjens’ ego.

The photography and costuming are again superb, but it all really takes a back seat to the writing, and not just the witty, scathing, perfectly parsed dialogue, but the intelligence with which Stoppard has chosen what to include, and what to drop. The result is fragmentary to be sure, but we would say intentionally so. To take a cue from the “Parade’s End” titles, it feels kaleidoscopic – a rich, dense picture being gradually built up, layer by refracted layer.  To reiterate, the grades may appear the same, but for our money Ep 2 represents a significant step up from the first, a broadening and deepening of themes and a welcome muddying-up of characterisation that bodes very well for the remaining 3 instalments. [A-]

Bits and pieces

– So far every time they’ve done a communal meal scene, it’s been a winner — last week it was the vicarage breakfast, and this week we got a fabulous Monty Python-style “picnic” lunch on a windy mountainside complete with dining table, servants and full silver service. We look forward to a completely bonkers dinner scene next week…

– Another bit of writerly cleverness that the geek in us wants to watch out for is how Stoppard will incorporate “parade’s end” or some derivation of it, into next week’s episode, having done it pretty seamlessly in the last two. The first week it was Tietjens himself referring, if we recall, to the “parade” of one’s public appearance, this week it cropped up in reference to the war, and how there would be no more “ceremonial” parades.

– Sylvia putdown of the week: Tietjens’ “mealsack Anglican sainthood”

– A rare directorial misstep, we felt, was the end of the fireplace scene between Tietjens and Miss Wannup. His disappearance while she had her eyes closed was kind of daft and melodramatic for a man who is neither, no?

Written by Oliver Lyttleton and Jessica Kiang

 

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