Saturday, 22 September 2012

Parade's End: a review



My goodness, the last week has just flown by - and I wasn't even doing much to make it seem so!  I must apologise again for the silence that has emanated from this blog for the last 8 days - terribly remiss of me I'm sure.

While there seems to be another lull in the proceedings I thought I would take this opportunity to post about a television drama that has just finished ("good timing, Bruce", I can hear you say, but read on...) here in the UK and which should be of great interest to you, my readers.  Of such great interest, in fact, that I'm more than a little surprised that someone else hasn't mentioned it before now.  I am referring, of course, to the recent five-part B.B.C. Two Edwardian drama Parade's End starring Benedict Cumberbatch, based on the book by Ford Madox Ford and adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard.

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I first became aware of this production a few weeks before the first episode aired when a "preview" article appeared in The Daily Telegraph and an interview with Cumberbatch was published - I can't quite remember where, it may have been the same newspaper - focussing on his role in the upcoming series.  I recall that both articles seemed to be at pains to compare it - in a highly superior manner - with ITV's Downton Abbey, the third series of which was then due to begin shortly (16th September), but ended up omitting any precis of what it was actually about beyond the barest details.  As such I watched the first episode with no knowledge of what to expect (having never read the novel) and was promptly blown away by this beguiling adaptation.

To compare it to Downton is like comparing a supermarket's "basic" range with its "connoisseur" line.  That's not to do Downton a disservice - so far the episodes of this run have been some of the best since the first series - but there's no denying that even through all the trials and tribulations of that household it is still recognisably Sunday evening entertainment of the lighter variety.  I still like it, though, and Julian Fellowes has done a splendid job with it.  But Parade's End is just... in a different league.  Despite there being fewer characters they are all so complex and their lives so intertwined that one is transfixed, and almost obliged to follow each episode closely in order to really appreciate what's going on.  Each individual is so fascinating - helped in no small part by an excellent cast of actors.

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Benedict Cumberbatch we know and love from Sherlock and here he gives another virtuoso performance as civil servant Christopher Tietjens - albeit a strikingly different one from his turn as the Great Detective.  Here he is a highly principled man, locked in a loveless marriage and struggling to reconcile the fast-changing world around him with his own strict values - values that are tested to the limit when he meets and falls in love with a young suffragette.  In some ways I could empathise with Christopher Tietjens - a man with strong principles, having difficulty finding his way in the modern world.  Stoppard has done a wonderful job in making Christopher's dilemma appear allegorical to troubles faced by people in the world today, it seems to me.

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Rebecca Hall, as Sylvia Tietjens, I have personally not seen before although she has appeared in some acclaimed films of recent years (for example Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Prestige and Frost/Nixon).  Here she gives a remarkable performance as Tietjen's unfaithful wife, amazingly subtle in her cruelty.  Her character is of a type that is equal parts attractive and repugnant, sometimes both together, and that is an incredible feat for an actress to pull off.  I hope we shall see more of Miss Hall in the future.

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Adelaide Clemens plays young suffragette Valentine Wannop, the lady Christopher Tietjens meets by chance and ends up falling in love with (and she with him).  I may struggle to write anything constructive here, for I admit that I fell in love with the character too.  Also highly principled, but a much more forward-looking way, she is possibly the only woman to help bring Christopher Tietjens into the 20th century and is not afraid to tell him what she thinks.  She is complementary and encouraging where Sylvia is destructive and stifling.  A relative newcomer, Adelaide Clemens has appeared in such un-vintage fare as X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Silent Hill: Revelation 3D but watch out for her next year in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby in which she will play Catherine.

A superb supporting cast including Rupert Everett, Miranda Richardson and Rufus Sewell helps this series to maintain its high level of drama, with each character having a part to play in the overall story arc.

Parade's End had for me a unique quality about it.  It is a series that screams for its episodes to be watched in one sitting - I have tried looking at clips after having watched the entire programme and snippets simply cannot provide the same intensity of feeling one gets from the whole hour.  At the end of that hour one feels somehow culturally enriched, a feeling a TV drama programme hasn't given me for goodness knows how long.  Then it suddenly occurs to you that you're actually still thinking about things that have gone on in the episode, continuing to put things together and appreciating the results long after the credits have finished rolling.  Some critics have decried the somewhat "jumpy" nature of events in some episodes, the fact that you have to follow the dialogue and the action closely throughout, but this is what sets Parade's End apart from other existing costume dramas and, as I hope I have suggested above, makes it a far more engrossing and stimulating experience.

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All the deep, intellectual stuff aside Parade's End is at the end of the day still a costume drama and there is lots of sartorial goodness for both chaps and chappettes.  Cumberbatch's wardrobe is typical of the Edwardian gentleman with hats, three-piece suits, separate collars and overcoats galore, although Rupert Everett also gets some choice outfits.  Ladies, there is something for every taste whether it be Rebecca Hall's flamboyant dresses, robes and coats or Adelaide Clemens' prim, tomboyish blouses, ties and suits.

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Now, Parade's End did indeed finish yesterday evening (boo!) but for those of you in the UK I am pleased to say that all five parts are on iPlayer for the next week.  Doubtless the DVD will be out shortly too.  American readers will be pleased to know that the series was produced in conjunction with HBO, so its appearance on U.S. television is only a matter of time, I'd say.  I understand that you are only just beginning season two of both Downton Abbey and Sherlock whereas in the British Isles season three has/is about to start[ed], so it might take a bit of time.  In the interim, clips are available on Youtube.  Alas, being based on a period novel means no more than the five existing episodes of Parade's End, either.

Be that as it may, I thoroughly recommend seeking out this series, if you have not already seen it (and if you have I'd be pleased to hear your opinions).

6 comments:

  1. I love Parades End, though it is a nightmare to watch it with someone who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on- there is just too much to explain. Luckily I have kept up with it, but there are some in my family, naming no names, that have tested my knowledge and patience over the past few weeks!
    I haven’t seen the last episode yet, so I shall look forward to sitting down to watch it in the week.

    T x

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  2. I have yet to watch the last two episodes but up until now I have found it beautifully acted but utterly depressing.

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  3. How on earth did I miss this?! By not turning on the tele I guess...thank God for you and iPlayer! :)

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  4. I absolutely loved it, every second! I did write a little about it after episode one. If you're interested : www.yonksnews.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/lazy-august

    Highly recommended if you like period drama. I agree with every word you said.
    Di
    xxxx

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  5. I am to review this shortly - but not with same love as you, I'm afraid. Whilst I think it *was* a beautiful production - I don't feel it needed to be 5 hours/weeks long - I lost complete interest until the final episode
    :(

    Such a shame - as I love a good costume drama from that era.

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  6. Erse, I missed this completely. i'll try to catch up with it on iPlayer.

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