There is a blind spot in the American historical brain–and let’s be generous to ascribe only one–that is the First World War. The loss of life on such a large scale with little or no justification begins, from my perch, a change in the appreciation of war from the gallant to the absurd. I am tempted to be lead by popular ignorance to think that Americans, based upon their relative absence from the First World War and the retroactive justification of the Second World War, were late to the party of mass military disillusionment until the Vietnam War. Thankfully, there is a whole universe of literature–contributed to by American authors, I hasten to add–that capture and convey this period with wit and skill. And for people with high aspirations and low self-discipline and reading speed, we have the BBC to give us wonderful objects like Parade’s End (2012) based upon the series of novels by that name from Ford Madox Ford.
Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a man out of time. He is an Edwardian hero. Merciful, understanding, diffident, brilliant, just, modest, and a kind of brave. The American idea of an English gentleman. He has a liaison with Sylvia Satterthwaite (Rebecca Hall) and marries her when she is left in the family way by the passionate, but spineless Gerald Drake (Jack Huston). This begins the saga of Christopher and Sylvia’s tortured, uncomplimentary life together. Christopher wishes only to do right by her but Sylvia cannot stand his saintly perfection. “It’s woman against man. Now and ever has been.”
His perfection runs deep. He is generous with his wisdom and his purse to his friend Macmaster (Stephen Graham) who, though born a tradesman’s son, climbs the greasy pole with vigor. He falls in love with a suffragette, Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), who shares his perfections, but they dare not act upon it. Even when his name is run through the mud, leading his would-be supporters like General Campion (Roger Allam), his brother Mark (Rupert Everett), or his father (Alan Howard) to think ill of him, he never seeks out to correct the slander.
This miniseries is a character epic, like all adaptations of genuine literary achievements must be. Brideshead Revisited (1981) is of this same nature. However, while Waugh (the author of Brideshead Revisited (1945)) provided story and dialogue for transcription, Ford left a bit of a mess to be put into shape by Tom Stoppard (of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990) fame). And it is put into brilliant shape. Credit to series director Susanna White for a phenomenal job. It is sleek, shiny, and well paced. Brideshead Revisited can lag at times (for those not wholly in love with it), but Parade’s End does not. It may be tortuous for those who care for the characters, but it does not lag.
Is it worth mentioning how terrific the actors are? I failed to mention, because I could see no fit place to put them, that the cast also includes Miranda Richardson and Janet McTeer (lately of the Oscar nomination for Albert Nobbs (2011)). Cumberbatch has a ludicrous amount of credits over his ten year film and television career showing a clear upward trajectory. He has the talent. Rebecca Hall has an even better resume in that period (with the occasional clanger). They are eminently watchable and appealing. And, considering Hall’s character, that’s saying something.
Sylvia is one of those terrible characters–by which I mean beastly and cruel–that females will unaccountably claim some affinity to. Christopher surely holds the same quality (mutatis mutandis) if only unstated by myse…I mean men. Men commit the sin of overestimation and women commit the sin of accurate self-assessment. Forgive me, this is rank bias. For as long as there are knuckle-dragging cretins who think they are Patrick Bateman, women cannot claim to have cornered the market on sociopathy. Why people wish to be seen as vicious is beyond me. Perhaps it’s that if they’re going to be terrible people, they might as well be a character in Wuthering Heights (or an episode of Cops, depending on your tastes).
Yet these characters are common in the elite works of literature and contribute to the achievement. There is something about them and their tragic fault–being horrible creatures–that reaches out and grabs me. They personify the world we see. The common occurrence of meanness and cruelty in nature and each other can be puzzled out in one person. “Why can’t she just..?” It’s almost too basic to discuss.
The character work is central, but there is the period-ness of it to consider as well. The more British drama you watch, the more acclimated you will become with respect to British conflicts in those periods. This may seem obvious, but it rarely is. Period dramas, unlike Downton Abbey (2010-) are almost always based upon works of literature. Literature is less interested in painfully direct exposition on the themes and conflicts of the day, but rather put them in the back-drop. Issues of socialism, fascism, racism, the loss of position in the world, the evolution of social mores, and class distinctions all create the milleau of Britain in the 20th century. It is unconsciously fascinating and Parade’s End brings it out in force. It’s one of those things that just makes you want to go out and read every great piece of literature there is. Then you don’t. But inspiration can be intoxicating.
Only currently available in the UK on Region 2. It’s just come out on HBO, so a Region 1 (US) version can’t be far behind.