When we left off with “Parade’s End” (two weeks ago — TIFF commitments mean that we had to skip last week’s recap, which will be covered below), war had arrived, with Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the trenches, and his wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) seemingly finding religion. Part three of the show stayed mostly away from the front, picking up with Christopher waking in a military hospital, concussed by a shell, and seemingly unable to remember even his name.
Meanwhile, Sylvia has another would-be lover, Brownlie (Jamie Parker), who’s intent on spreading rumors about her husband in an attempt to get her to divorce him. These rumors — that he shares a mistress with his friend Macmaster (Stephen Graham), that he got pretty young suffragette Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens) pregnant, both of which are entirely false — are at pretty much at the heart of the terrific third episode, which was certainly the high watermark of the show so far.
The Tietjens name is already tarnished thanks to Sylvia’s infidelity, and her perceived sympathies with the Germans — she’s, as she says, “a black mark” against him, and the machinations of her various lovers, or admirers, are only making things worse — Major Drake, likely the father of her child, an intelligence officer, has said that Christopher should never be trusted with confidential material, and Brownlie conspires to ruin his reputation further by bouncing his cheques.
And these rumors all come to a head when his estranged father is told the worst of them by brother Mark (Rupert Everett). Aware that his family name and home are set to pass to the hands of a bastard, he goes into a bush and shoots himself. If anything, however, this helps bring Christopher closer to Valentine (even as a toucing and beautifully performed scene between Cumberbatch and Hall, as he relates his experiences in the trenches, shows that there is real love between Tietjens and his wife), asking her, just before he heads back to the front, to become his mistress. “Brief Encounter“-style, their plans are thwarted, heartbreakingly, by the early arrival home of her brother Edward, though they’ve at least confessed their feelings to each other.
There was some occasionally fragmented storytelling that left us a little lost (we’re still a bit confused about the revelation that priest Father Consett (Ned Dennehy) was a spy, and had been hanged off-screen for his treachery. But the mid-point of the miniseries was where things really started to be drawn together, with the strongest and richest script so far, and the performances, from Cumberbatch and Hall to Stephen Graham and Anne-Marie Duff, all getting to show off new colors. It was also, more than the somewhat intellectual pleasures of the first couple of episodes, deeply felt and terribly moving.
It’s interesting that each episode has felt, in some ways, quite distinct — Tom Stoppard hasn’t written one five hour film, he’s wrangled five contained episodes from the sprawling source material. Unfortunately, this worked to the disadvantage of this week’s episode, which felt like a bit of a break, tonally, from what we’ve had so far, and one that felt a little like it was keeping the wheels spinning.
Thanks to the efforts of his brother, Tietjens is far from the front lines, preparing troops for deployment under the command of General Campion (Roger Allam). There are still dangers from bombardment — as demonstrated when a man under his command stumbles into Tietjens’ hut, covered with blood. But something much worse is on the way — Sylvia, who ostensibly is after a letter from her husband that will let her live at the family home of Grodby with their son, but also apparently wants to win back her husband.
She manages to seduce him, partly after telling him, seemingly truthfully, that she’s not slept with a man for five years, but as ever, she has other admirers — she’s come to France with her old beau Potty Perowne (Tom Mison). And given that Tietjens is already having issues, most notably clashing with the head of the military police, a minor scuffle at the hotel after Perowne tries to come into Sylvia’s hotel room results in Campion reluctantly sending Christopher back to the front, where it’s entirely possible that he’ll be killed.
There were plenty of joys to be found in the new episode, not least in the excellent performances of Patrick Kennedy and Elliot Levey as newcomers McKechnie and Colonel Levin. But it felt broader and almost sitcom-like in places, compared to some previous episodes (thanks in part to the score, which we’ve never quite got on board with). The episode suffered a little from the narrowed focus, with Valentine, McMaster and co barely glimpsed or absent entirely, but mainly it was the way in which the show has started to go over old ground a bit. The camp setting was well achieved (particularly in a stunning introductory crane shot), but felt a little familiar, and some of the interplay between Sylvia and Christopher started to feel a touch repetitive.
Still, spinning the wheels was part of the point, and we did get further insights into Christopher, who Cumberbatch has made one of the most fascinating TV protagonists in some time. And more than ever, it re-emphasized that he’s at the very center of the show. One character commented early on that “there won’t always be a war, but there’ll always be an Empire.” As it turns out, she’s only right on the former count (and also kind of wrong there too…), but more than ever the end of this episode makes clear that Christopher Tietjens is the last gentleman in the dying embers of the British Empire.
Episode Three [A]
Episode Four [B]
Bits And Pieces
– Patrick Kennedy, who played McKechnie, donned a First World War uniform alongside Cumberbatch last year in Steven Spielberg‘s “War Horse.” Looks like he’s a major part of the concluding episode next week.
– We really enjoyed Jamie Parker’s performance as Brownlie, brief as it was. Parker was, to us, the stand out among the cast of “The History Boys” that also spawned Dominic Cooper and James Corden, but other than a biggish role in “Valkyrie,” he’s not done a ton of film and TV work. Hopefully more will come down th eline.
– Sad to bid farewell to Rufus Sewell, who was terrific as the mad vicar. The image of him in the blood red bathtub was both shocking and oddly comic. Maybe that was just us…
– Last time we wrote about “Parade’s End,” we weren’t allowed to talk about “Anna Karenina,” Stoppard’s other big adaptation this year. Watching the two simultaneously has been an interesting experience — there are certainly a lot of parallels to be found.