The miniseries Parade’s End played on UK TV way back in August. I have been impatiently waiting for it to come to American TV ever since. HBO had the rights for months, but they finally decided to play the thing last week. Instead of a weekly installment, HBO played the 5-part miniseries over three days. I’m not certain why they decided to wait 6 months and then squeeze the miniseries into the middle of the week, but whatever. I was just happy to see it.
Parade’s End was adapted from a series of four books written by Ford Madox Ford, in the 1910s and 20s. After seeing this miniseries, I intend to read all of the books. The characters were spectacularly well done, and I can only guess the books are very good.
I love a BBC period drama, but obviously the main draw for me in seeing this one was Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays one of the three main characters, a man named Christopher Tietjens.
Tietjens is an incredible character. A firm believer in the truth, in honor, in fair-play, and everything simultaneously morally righteous and annoyingly priggish. He has a habit of making corrections in the margins of his encyclopedia. His know-it-all-ness is alternately tedious (especially to his wife) and funny. Benedict always seems to play characters smarter than everyone else in the room, and Tietjens is no exception. Some of the best moments in the series are when he confronts and out-thinks corpulent blowhards and moronic busybodies.
He embodies everything stereotypically British–stiff upper lip (literally, Benedict barely moves his upper lip for the entire miniseries), honorable, more capable of showing affection to horses than people–but he is also a man that hearkens back to the past. He admits that he loves the idea of a more agrarian, simple society that he believes Britain embodied in the past. He reminded me a bit of what I know of Churchill. He clings to Tory ideals that don’t really reflect the society in which he is currently living. He doesn’t like the changes that are coming up in society at the beginning of the 20th century.
And that is the central theme of this miniseries. The title reflects the end of the society as drama, as pomp and circumstance. The upper classes are breaking down, the institutions of nobility, of patriarchy, and of marriage are falling apart. All the Anglican ideals to which Tietjens adheres most fervently are disappearing from ‘modern’ society. This is the last gasp of that Victorian culture that was so prevalent just ten-twenty years earlier.
There are two women in Christopher’s life, and neither are much like him. His wife, Sylvia, is almost his antithesis. She is Catholic, feisty, vapid, lascivious, and tremendously bored. She is played by Rebecca Hall, who looks so astonishingly beautiful in this miniseries that I’m convinced she has been sent specifically to make the rest of us mortal women feel bad about ourselves.
It’s difficult to determine who is less pleased with this marriage, which is doomed from the start. After a fling with Christopher while in the midst of a long affair with a married man, Sylvia discovers she is pregnant. Not wanting to be ruined in society, she marries Christopher. Being something of a martyr, and a truly honorable man, Christopher marries her despite knowing there is a chance the child is not his. He resents her at the same time that he is bewitched by her appearance and her joie de vivre. She resents him for being so (to borrow an anachronistic term from the 1950s) square, so emotionless. She is constantly (especially in the beginning of their marriage) trying to provoke his anger and jealousy. He never gives in to his emotions.
At first, I found Sylvia difficult to like. She is like a petulant child, acting out in the hope of a reaction from disinterested parents. For me, it seems obvious that people so utterly bored with life must be very boring themselves. But as the series continues, she improves. Her independence alone must be commended, considering when she lived and how she lived. Though she first finds Christopher a bore, it’s obvious she loves him too. No one wants their husband’s attention that badly unless they care. No matter how misguided and immature her actions are, all she can hope is that it will provoke a reaction in her husband. She does truly want to work it out, and I found myself sort of hoping it would.
But then there is Valentine, a young suffragette that Christopher meets. Valentine is everything that Sylvia isn’t and vice versa. She is played by Adelaide Clemens, soon to star in the new Gatsby movie.
In some ways, it’s strange that Christopher would be attracted to a revolutionary woman. Women’s suffrage was a pretty revolutionary idea, and you can see clearly in the miniseries that the majority of people thought suffragettes were whores. They were trying to undermine the status quo, and that’s never going to gain you popularity with most of society. That Christopher, so conservative and old-fashioned, is attracted to Valentine is explainable because she is an honorable and honest person. Unlike Sylvia, who is all about manipulation and misinformation, Valentine has the honest naiveté of every young revolutionary. She is immediately attracted to Christopher because (in my opinion) she recognizes a similarly moral person in a vastly immoral society.
This being a British period drama, the love triangle is unconsummated for 99% of the miniseries. This is not Team Edward vs Team Jacob. The majority of the miniseries sees Christopher trying to repress his feelings for Valentine because he is married and despite his wife’s unfaithfulness, he refuses to break his marriage vows. He does not even want to divorce her, because he just doesn’t think it’s the right thing to do, in any circumstance.
This love triangle is interrupted by World War One, and that event is the catalyst for all the change we witness in British society in this era. Entire generations of men gone to war and coming back wounded physically, destroyed emotionally, or not coming back at all. The romantic and chivalrous ideal of Victorian society cannot stand up to the reality of WWI. Parade’s End makes this perfectly obvious. Christopher, irritated with illogical bureaucracy, resigns his government job and enlists to fight. In one scene, the incongruous nature of Victorian society meeting 20th-century war is highlighted particularly well. In a fit of exhaustion, stress, and emotional trauma during an air raid, Christopher claims to be able to write a sonnet in under 3 minutes. His education in the classics, in poetry, in languages, would have made this quite simple for him. He completes his task, and his fellow officer (a former scholar) claims to be able to translate it into Latin in under 3 minutes as well. This is the sort of exercise their education has prepared these upper-class men to do. So they are doing it, in the middle of war-torn France with bombs dropping all around them. And for the most part, this was painfully true. No one was prepared for the carnage of WWI, but I would guess the officers least of all. Working men would have seen terrible things in the course of their much rougher lives. Officers (whose positions were earned through social class or purchased for them) would have come from more educated, but more sheltered backgrounds. But they were still there, in the trenches, with just as much chance of being shot or blown in half. As with any war, the pointlessness is overwhelming, but WWI was especially pointless.
The miniseries ends with the end of the war. Christopher makes it home, but the society he knows is largely gone. And England did change almost entirely during those years, far more than the US did. The upper class lifestyle of landed nobility tried to continue to hang on afterward, but things were too different and the century rolled on without them. The miniseries did a great job illustrating the end of that era. Christopher doesn’t hold so tight to his Anglican morals when he comes back; he sees where they are useful, but he makes his own morality now. He allows himself to fall in love with Valentine, and he lets Sylvia go. The miniseries ends with their relationship finally being consummated, and Sylvia contemplating a divorce.
Because of the time period, there are many comparisons between Parade’s End and Downton Abbey. I like Downton Abbey a lot, but comparing the two is ridiculous and not going to make anyone happy. For the record, I thought Parade’s End was mature, thoughtful, subtle, and meaningful. It was for adults; it was perhaps for the slightly disenchanted. Downton Abbey has proved, especially with season 3, that it is more of a soap opera than anything else. It is an exceedingly well-done soap opera, but the characters and the drama veer often into the melodramatic and the ridiculous. Its portrayal of World War I had a high casualty rate, but barely scratched the surface of what is generally believed to be the most horrifying part of that war–the pointlessness of it. If you really compare the two, Parade’s End is like literature, and Downton Abbey is like a very well-done glossy magazine.
Reviews have all been pretty good regarding Parade’s End. Everyone is agreed that the acting is superb and the cinematography beautiful. I think that the accent Benedict Cumberbatch puts on, though probably very accurate to the period, might put some people off. It sounds comical to a modern ear, and can take you out of the moment.
My real problem with the miniseries lies either in the editing or writing. I don’t know enough about how these things are made to tell you which. There’s some sort of disconnect in what’s presented to the audience, and we don’t get the whole story. We see snippets of larger themes and problems the characters are working through, but we don’t get the whole story. It’s hard to understand sometimes why they are doing what they are doing. Sylvia goes to France, to the middle of the fighting, to visit Christopher during the war. It’s fairly obvious that she wants to win him back, and for a moment it looks like it might work. But he is irrevocably in love with Valentine by this point, and though he and Sylvia get a moment of rekindled affection and respect, it turns to nothing. The next time they meet, after the war, there is very little trace of it in their interaction. Sylvia is either sick or pretending to be so; Christopher does not care. They are back to their old interaction–she wants his attention and his outrage, he doesn’t want to show it. There are lots of moments where the interactions don’t all add up, don’t flow in an even keel. I imagine this is the trouble of condensing what were four books into a short miniseries, but it’s hard to tell for sure. It was difficult to feel the emotional reward and cathartic release at the end of the miniseries because of these strange missteps sprinkled throughout. One of the reviews I read, here, describes it really well, saying that the ‘connective tissue’ of the story is missing. That’s exactly how I felt. The various limbs of this story were not adequately connected.
It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t always rewarding. It was interesting and gave me a lot of things to think about. I cannot wait to read the books, which will have the connective tissue.