As Downton Abbey surges toward its fourth season, "Parade's End" could be altogether average and it would still benefit from Downton's popularity. Fortunately for Brit-TV junkies, this five-part, five-hour HBO/BBC miniseries is way above average, as evident from the glowing reception it received when it premiered on the Beeb last August.
Widespread accolades are guaranteed to continue with its stateside premiere on HBO, and no wonder: the four source novels by the quintessentially British Ford Madox Ford (later combined as the "Parade's End" tetralogy) were adapted by Sir Tom Stoppard — the renowned playwright/screenwriter's first TV work in 30 years — and director Susanna White is on a hot streak after directing acclaimed TV adaptations of "Bleak House" and "Jane Eyre," in addition to the family feature "Nanny McPhee Returns" and episodes of HBO's "Generation Kill" and "Boardwalk Empire." When it comes to behind-the-camera pedigree, you don't get much classier than this.
Ford's novels pose an epic challenge of adaptation, which may explain why "Parade's End" lacks the organic flow of Downton Abbey, but further comparison is pointless: "Parade's End" is in a class by itself, and Stoppard has honored the essence of Ford's decade-spanning fiction without limiting himself to slavish fidelity. If the series' chronology feels occasionally uneven, it's also bolstered by Stoppard's original contributions, including the same deliciously droll humor that earned the writer an Oscar for scripting "Shakespeare in Love."
Stoppard's chronology is linear (as it is in the novels), with Part One (spanning 1908-12), establishing numerous characters while focusing on the story's central love triangle: Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a dignified throwback to the now-fading Edwardian era, an aristocrat from a privileged, land-owning family. A brilliant officer in the Department of Statistics, Tietjens holds firm to the principled conviction that respectable men must adhere to a certain sense of "parade," a code of conduct essential to self-respect and social standing.
Just one problem: Tietjen's noble values demand that he remain loyal to his unfaithful wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), a manipulative socialite who gives birth to a son who may or may not be his. Even as Sylvia shamelessly flirts with other men, Tietjens maintains a façade of contentment until he meets Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a young, high-spirited suffragette who represents everything new and progressive in rapidly-changing English society. Their connection is immediate and powerful, and yet Tietjens can't bring himself to kiss her when she gives him a clear and longed-for opportunity. Much of "Parade's End" explores his inner turmoil as he's caught between true love and marital misery.
World War I provides the backdrop for tidal shifts in history, as Edwardian peace gives way to chaos and carnage. When Tietjens is ordered to manipulate military statistics to bolster support for the war, he quits in disgust and joins the army, recovering from shell-shock in France while Valentine takes a teaching job in London and Sylvia continues — albeit chastely — to encourage the attention of would-be suitors.
Tietjens is sent to the Western front, but while the trench battles in "Parade's End" merit comparison to similar scenes in "Paths of Glory" and "Gallipoli," the Great War serves primarily as a catalyst for ongoing drama on the home front. It's here that Stoppard juggles a host of supporting characters and relationships, including an affair between Tietjens' colleague Vincent Macmaster (Stephen Graham) and Edith Duchemin (Anne-Marie Duff), the frustrated wife of an ill-fated minister (Rufus Sewell) who's keeping secrets of his own.
As war continues to fray the fabric of British society, "Parade's End" charts the destructive course of rumors that intensify Tietjens' marital dilemma to the point of taxing his sanity. Inadvertently encourged by Tietjens' less-principled brother Mark (Rupert Everett), the rumors have a tragic impact at Groby, the Tietjens family estate, while Valentine's family (led by her mother, played by Miranda Richardson) is ostracized for their pacifist stance against the war.
These and other characters add depth to the miniseries, but only rarely do they register as dramatically as the central love triangle. "Parade's End" certainly benefits from their presence, but those roles (and performances) remain entirely secondary compared to the formidable trio of Cumberbatch, Hall and Clemens, an appealing Australian newcomer who bears sisterly resemblance to Michelle Williams, and is now clearly destined for stardom. (She is also featured in Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," due this spring.)
Cumberbatch (who shot to fame as "Sherlock" and costars in this summer's "Star Trek Into Darkness" and the upcoming "Hobbit" sequels) continues his ascension as an unlikely star of old-school distinction: His seething intensity (and booming baritone) is a perfect match for his role as a good man struggling to maintain his integrity while emotionally coming apart at the seams.
Hall's performance is equally remarkable for the way she elicits sympathy as Sylvia, even as the character remains despicably self-serving. Sylvia genuinely loves Tietjens, after all, and remains chaste despite flirtatious efforts to provoke her husband's jealousy. Sylvia is a mass of contradictions, and with the help of Stoppard's exquisite dialogue, Hall wrangles those contradictions into an emotionally complex, fully dimensional performance, portraying Sylvia as simultaneously devious, selfish, amoral, wounded, vulnerable, and victimized by forces beyond her control.
In stark contrast, Clemens fully embodies Valentine as a young, hopeful idealist who endearingly clings to notions of pure romantic love, even as those notions are challenged by the harsh reality of war and messy human behavior. She's a beacon of light in Tietjens' emotional darkness, representing the only future that Tietjens can bear to live in. With her cute blonde bob and beaming smile, Clemens radiates that light from within.
"Parade's End" is a bit too sprawling to qualify as a masterpiece. It's easy to miss details amidst the density of Stoppard's dialogue (for example, listen closely for the explanation of Reverend Duchemin's fate), and some characters feel sketchy compared to the fully developed leads. And while White's direction achieves a rare degree of elegance on locations in England, Belgium and France, she's still making TV on a budget, relying (for example) on too many shots of spinning train wheels as visual shorthand for travel. (They reminded me of John Huston's humorously repetitive shots of airliners — pointing screen-left when westbound, screen-right when eastbound -- as a cross-country sight gag in "Prizzi's Honor.")
I'm nitpicking, of course. Given such a wealth of literary adaptation, upscale direction and award-worthy performances, who's complaining?
Christopher Tietjens as Benedict Cumberbatch
Sylvia Tietjens as Rebecca Hall
Valentine Wannop as Adelaide Clemens
Mark Tietjens as Rupert Everett
General Campion as Roger Allam
Vincent Macmaster as Stephen Graham
Mrs. Wannop as Miranda Richardson
Potty Perowne as Tom Mison
Reverend Duchemin as Rufus Sewell
Gerald Blake as Jack Huston