Parade's End makes its American debut tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Parade’s End moves like a still-life. I don’t just mean the narrative, though somewhere around hour three of whatever was going on with the war, I began to wonder if I’d ever feel again. The more crucial point is that the narrative is realized with sandpaper, so smooth and flat, so heavy and concrete. The HBO/BBC miniseries chronicles the life and times of a watched pot who takes a decade to boil. On the page—and here I mean Ford Maddox Ford’s tetralogy as well as Tom Stoppard’s screenplay—it’s a storm, a cackling whirlwind constantly threatening to tear stiff-lipped, marble-mouthed encyclopedia Christopher Tietjens from his right honourable value system, or at least provoke a grimace. On the screen, it’s more of a drizzle, a nuisance you nevertheless have to endure to get where you’re going.
It’s the story of Christopher Tietjens, who fancies himself and may well be the last English gentleman. He’s married to the wily, tempestuous Sylvia whose child may or may not be his, but when she runs off with another man, Christopher meets a fresh-faced suffragette named Valentine. He and Sylvia reconcile in short order, but Valentine stays in the picture, a constant temptation as Sylvia eggs him on. The Great War erupts, the aristocracy curdles, and Christopher threatens to become an anachronism if he can survive long enough.
Cumberbatch makes a sturdy protagonist, all clenched longing and slow chess. Whatever vitality he loses to increasing frustration Rebecca Hall gains, and she has all the best lines already. She begins by ostentatiously declaring, “I’m bored,” to the chagrin of her mother, but she’s just looking for a reaction. As episode four opens, she tries to get her dinner party to change the subject: “I say, it’d be nice if we could forget the war for just five minutes.” On cue, a bomb explodes in the distance. “I give up,” she says like she was personally affronted. She always has the demeanor of a bored master waiting out a hyper puppy, where the dog is whoever she happens to be with at the moment. She’s singular like her husband is singular. She’s fascinated by him. And she packs the biggest punch in the entire series with a surprising revelation that connects her even more deeply to Christopher. But maybe that’s just how Christopher sees her, how he justifies their relationship. After all, it’s his story.
I sometimes wonder what people mean when they call the latest cable drama beautiful. Parade’s End, for instance, camps out in the front row as Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall twirl in pretty costumes and Roger Allam displays an English moustache, all spouting witty one-paragraphers. It roams picturesque English countrysides and visits a Mosel River valley retreat, often under cinematography-friendly conditions like twilight and fog. An ancient tree festooned with family trinkets makes a glittering sentinel outside a primary setting. Even The Great War offers the usual bomb-light silhouettes and artful greenish gray mudscapes, a mishmash of World War I iconography that loses some potency in its camp. In short, Parade’s End is like a postcard booklet. I wouldn’t call it beautiful at all.
It isn’t just that we’ve seen it before, but we have. Take your pick of World War I dramas up to and including Cumberbatch’s 2011 film War Horse. If there are any new images to be manufactured from trench warfare, Parade’s End doesn’t find them, and it doesn’t do much with the old ones, either. The most/only lacerating scene happens in a country estate. The leisure days before the war are Renoir hand-me-downs, and the gossipy bourgeois interiors are familiar from Downton Abbey and royal dramas like Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, also written by Tom Stoppard. Anna Karenina’s theatrical setting expands space and collapses time to pretty much no end other than dizziness, but a little of that imagination would go a long way in Parade’s End. As it is, the visuals have all the force of afternoon tea.
Director Susanna White, so detailed and observant on Generation Kill, finds moments of modernist abstraction but rarely lingers, as in a scene of panicking gulls that’s mesmerizing even before it’s turned into symbolism grist. The opening is a big tangle of memories, a potent montage closes the second episode, and elliptical cuts imbue Christopher’s return to his ancestral home with a certain danger. In fact, while the narrative generally marches ahead after the back-and-forth opening, it still wanders in something like a stream of consciousness. Major characters go unseen long enough that you forget how important they are until they return. On the other hand, an emotional climax bleeds into a slapstick routine so suddenly it hurts. The minute-to-minute editing looks pretty common, and the tonal shifts are like cold splashes, but pull back and it’s more interesting.
The other motif you can’t help but notice is the drinking-game-ready preponderance of mirrors. All reflective surfaces do in Parade’s End. The credits sequence is a brown kaleidoscope (yes, even the kaleidoscope is drained of life), and it opens onto a chandelier in a tracking shot which leads to Sylvia standing just where she can be seen in three mirrors. Naturally. It’s a story of perceptions as much as anything. At different times, Christopher and Sylvia both grapple with the concept of being seen as adulterers, he with the young Valentine, she with every male speaking part and one extra. Parade’s End is even more essentially about how they see themselves. Christopher’s old-fashioned integrity—parade, he calls it—eventually looks foolish even to him.