If you haven’t been watching Parade’s End, the five-part adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy of novels starring Benedict Cumberbatch, then I seriously suggest you do. As it stands at the start of the episode, the somewhat conservative and brilliant Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch), has resigned from the imperial office of statistics, and away from both his bitterly frustrated wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) and his potential saviour-cum-hopelessly smitten suffragette Valentine (Adelaide Clemens). So far, so Downton. But this episode was a reward for patiently enjoying the foundations set in the first two episodes- whilst we see less of the levity of Tietjens’ friend MacMaster (Stephen Graham) and his affair with Edith Duchemin (Anne-Marie Duff), we instead shift focus to three different themes- 1. What Titetjens really means to the women who love him, 2. The Tietjens dynasty and Christopher’s place in it, and 3. The effects of the war on society
First off, we discover that in actual fact Sylvia does love Christopher. Rebecca Hall is given more of an opportunity to show she is completely frustrated with Christopher, desperate for him to be more human, and more flawed. He is on a pedestal she wants to knock down, because she wants to love this man, but knows her wish will never come true. Her character became someone I really empathised with, rather than just an acid-tongued delight and the token villain. Clemens’ Valentine became less simpering and showed a little more depth- her sheer disappointment when her brother (Freddie Fox, playing the one character in the mini-series I have no time for) shows up and she can’t be Christopher’s mistress for the night makes her more than just a token suffragette. I am beginning to warm to her a lot more, and as Rupert Everett says as Christopher’s brother, “You’re good for him”, and she is. As both women develop, so does Christopher- he is not uptight, merely trapped. He does not know what to do as everyone of worth in London discredits him, spreading rumours, which are the catalyst for Sylvia realising how much she cares for him. Christopher is forgetting things, and he looks set to rebuild himself as a more modern man, and realising what is in front of him- a real chance for happiness, and a chance to rebuild his marriage. What happens next will be very interesting.
Next, we start to peel back the layers on Christopher’s brother and father, and the very meaning of what it is to be a Tietjens. Everett, like Hall, gets to flesh out his character more to be likeable rather than just a token appearance of Everett as a stuffy toff. Also, with his father’s reaction of the rumours of his son being selfish suicide, we see why Christopher is the way he is- his father really showed no love towards him. Christopher rid himself of the statistics office last episode, he joined the war not only to escape but to defend what he stands for as a man, he seems to want to be rid of Sylvia now to be with Valentine, and now he wants to be rid of his family- Christopher is changing, stripping himself of what he once was, realising he has no place in his family to the extent he allows Sylvia to raise his (possible) son as a catholic, an change the Groby guard.
And finally, the effects of war on society. This has been done to death- honest, working-class tommies, stoic aristocratic generals… yawn. Besides Journey’s End, Blackadder goes Forth and All Quiet on The Western Front, these sorts of war stories are saying the same old thing, they are emotionally manipulative and clichéd. What the hell can Parade’s End add to it all? For a start, refreshingly, it brushes over it. Whenever it is about the war directly, or actually in the war, it is fleeting and effective. It seems almost like a release for Tietjens, somewhere he can’t wait to get back to. We see how those at home are affected, in this restrictive and exclusive world. By not being patronising and sympathetic, we really what it did to a particular sector of British society. Very well done, messrs. Ford and Stoppard, very well done…
To me, the whole episode was very much a four-hander, with the Tietjens brothers and Christopher’s two women being the focus. As usual, the visuals were beautiful, but of a much bleaker and dark palette, perhaps indicating what is to come. It was refreshing that it was less about plot an more about character development, without ever getting dull or limited. If it moves in this direction and away from the light-heartedness of everyone outside of Christopher, his women and the Tietjens dynasty, then this could prove to be an utterly sterling serious and so much more than just another period drama, which has already proved it transcends.
This article was first posted on September 8, 2012