Comparisons, as English literature has told us, are odious, so let me say up front: Parade’s End is not in a zero-sum contest with Downton Abbey. Just as TV can hold more than one cop, lawyer or hospital drama, the Edwardian era is big enough for the both of them.
Still, that HBO’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy (airing Feb. 26–28) comes out after Downton’s huge stateside success cannot be lost on either the network or viewers, some of whom may be looking to it as a substitute, to refresh their teacups during the long Downton drought.
But the similarity stops at the china patterns. Introspective and gorgeous, opaque and standoffish, Parade’s End is little like the fast-paced, sentimental and aggressively likeable Downton. It’s perfectly possible to like both shows, or neither. But PBS’ hit offers a good frame for the five-hour miniseries, because the shows are similar on the surface and entirely unlike in storytelling and tone. If Downton is a nostalgic champagne toast to the bygone aristocracy, Parade’s End is more of a cold, bitter drink of scotch at its wake.
On the eve of World War I, we meet Christopher Tietjens (Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch), a rectitudinous coatrack of a noble gentleman who has the sense that he is living through the end of a thing: the class system, the British Empire, the codes of propriety he lives by. His stiff devotion to propriety gets bent, ever so briefly, in a lusty encounter on a train with socialite Sylvia (Rebecca Hall). She becomes pregnant–maybe the baby is his, maybe not–they get married, and though Christopher’s friends warn him against getting “trapped,” you can see that her wildness has stirred his placid blue blood, however briefly. “I was a mug,” he admits–and Cumberbatch lets his facade break into a lascivious grin–”but there’s something glorious in it.”
Sic transit gloria mundi, though. Their marriage sours, and three years later we find her flirting with a procession of men, while he stiffly, dutifully maintains the public pretense of their relationship. As Christopher explains it to a friend, “For a gentleman, there is such a thing as–call it parade.”
Cumberbatch, who has made the revived Sherlock magnetically watchable in his constantly agitated genius, performs the opposite trick with Christopher: his fascination is his placid exterior, and his engine idles so low you can barely hear it. Hall, meanwhile, invests complexity in a character who could seem a cruel and self-involved narcissist. She is that, but there’s also a fidelity to her fickleness: she wants hungrily to get a rise out of her husband, and sees his placidity as a kind of betrayal itself. He’s so showily indulgent of her, so pure in his sad martyrdom, she tells him, that “You forgive without mercy.” (Hall is fantastic in the role, all frustrated intelligence and appetite; her lips are more expressive than many actors’ entire bodies.)
Two things happen to shake Christopher’s comfort, and they pull him in opposite directions. He becomes attracted to a naive, earnest young suffragette, Valentine Wallop (Adalaide Clemens), who challenges both his fidelity and his Tory principles. And Europe breaks out in The Great War, which Christopher sees as not just a military threat, but a threat against the centuries-old, pastoral aristocratic order that he represents. He volunteers, “to fight for agriculture against industrialism, for the 18th century against the 20th, if you like.”
In the Tietjens’ personal lives as in the larger world, modernity is on the march and wreaking chaos. The adaptation, written by playwright Tom Stoppard and directed by Susanna White, presents the conflict as messy, giving the viewer no easy guidance as to how to see Christopher: he’s noble, standing for his principles; he’s a fool, risking life and happiness to be the last man defending ideals no one around him believes in anymore. Sylvia is a entitled brat; or she’s a passionate woman forced into a bitch-queen caricature by life with the bloodless Christopher. The aristocracy is an institution of noblesse oblige, or it’s a nest of debauched dimwits.
Stoppard and White’s adaptation doesn’t keep control of its contradictions. Sometimes, especially in the fraught scenes between Cumberbatch and Hall, it balances sympathy and critique. Other times it lurches between them, with jarring shifts in tone from melodrama to broad, even slapstick satire. (A confrontation between suffragist protesters and nobles on a golf course in the first episode could have been in an Edwardian episode of Benny Hill.)
The production and performers manage exquisite empathy for Christopher and Sylvia, but it has an ugly tone of superiority to its supporting characters, satirizing an uppercrust that’s already been done in by a century of populism. It’s beating a dead horsey set. That, and a wandering narrative–one episode you’re watching domestic drama, the next, battlefield farce-tragedy–may make it tough to stick through. It gets confusing; it gets boring in stretches. It may leave you behind, somewhere on a bleak French battlefield.
If you do make it through, you’ll find this arch, cerebral story ending on a note that’s surprisingly optimistic, if not exactly happy. Sometimes unwieldy, sometimes beautiful, Parade’s End is–like the turbulent new order it ushers in–a bit of a mess, with no easily identifiable good guys. This miniseries doesn’t tell you how to feel, and it’s not exactly bursting with charming, loveable characters. But there’s a poignance to its story of people realizing their orderly parade is breaking up all around them, and that they’ll have to decide, all on their own, which way to march next.