The five-part BBC/HBO miniseries “Parade’s End” premiered on HBO last week (February 26) and is also available on video-on-demand. The playwright Tom Stoppard has adapted Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 900 page, four-novel series “Parade’s End” for television: the intellectual’s Edwardian-era alternative to “Downton Abbey.” Both series take place in the same time period, beginning with the decade before the First World War. But the view of the British class system, the end of the Empire, and the attitude towards the war could not be more radically different.
Take the British class system as one example. The mansion of the main character, Christopher Tietjens, is no less opulent or aristocratic than Downton Abbey but is not populated by kindhearted masters who confide in their servants. Moreover, unlike “Downton,” which used the trench warfare in France mostly as a heroic experience for its young hero Matthew Crawley, “Parade’s End” is a scathing indictment of the “Great War.” The massacre of an entire generation of young men on both sides of the front, and the distancing of the entire British elite in their club chairs and literary salons is mercilessly presented.
“Parade’s End” tells the story of a bad marriage, in an inner world tiny and self-contained, in a privileged highly stratified society. Christopher Tietjens (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) believes in a code of conduct as well as high ethical standards no longer upheld by the majority of his peers (if they ever had upheld them). Most of his social class is solely determined to hold on to their positions in society. The era appears to be dying, and this is the tragedy. Tietjens is clear-eyed about some of the impending changes and blindsided by others.
A brilliant statistician and analyst, Tietjens is also an anachronistic English gentleman, righteous to the point of rigidity and loyal to a fault towards Sylvia ( an astonishing Rebecca Hall), a haughty beauty who finds her husband’s punctiliousness and moral standards insufferable. She will inflict any humiliation to elicit a response from her affectless spouse because he is the only one among her many male admirers not to find her irresistible. Without Christopher’s desire for her, the other lovers are meaningless.
Tietjens’s morals are tested when he meets a lovely, intellectual young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (a winsome Adelaide Clemens), who returns his affections and his wit. He remains faithful to Sylvia, but the two are disgraced by gossip anyway. Only Tietjens believes that war in Europe is imminent. He volunteers to fight with the French, out of a sense of honor and duty, only to see that the war is cruel and futile.
“Parade’s End” is a more focused and darker story than “Downton,” as it gazes into its characters’ twisted souls and their self-destructiveness. The viewer needs to embrace the contradictions in human nature– the way one person can be both insightful and hateful (especially Sylvia). While you always understand the connections among the characters on “Downton Abbey,” you have to piece them together yourself in “Parade’s End.” Critical elements of the characters often aren’t revealed but must be inferred.
This mini-series is much more subtle and moves slowly, as the early 20th century British aristocratic life did, with everything looking good on the surface but simmering with scandal and sensuality underneath.
Cumberbatch can convey volumes by simply curling his unusual Cupid’s Bow upper lip. As an emotionally stifled Brit small facial shifts can seem glacial. He is a shift-changer: moving from nobility to foolish lover to respectful and generous, to broken and surviving.
“Parade’s End” has a different sort of entertainment value than “Downton Abbey”, but no less a visceral and addicting experience, without a shred of unnecessary dialog or emotion.