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Has nobody seen this? It's showing on BBC2 (Friday evenings), and has been by far the most talked-about TV in Britain this month. It's based on a trilogy of novels by Ford Madox Ford (who also wrote The Good Soldier), adapted by (my favourite living) playwright Tom Stoppard, and stars Sherlock himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, alongside Rebecca Hall. Is this not airing in the US?

A few scattered impressions:

- Rebecca Hall is absolutely magnificent; I've been impressed by her in other work,but personally I think she takes it to another level here; it doesn't hurt that she gets most of the best dialogue, but the way she phrases even her most difficult lines, the subtlety of emotion she conveys is wonderful.

- It's great to have a writer like Stoppard working in TV - I'd make a contrast here with Julian Fellowes' writing in Downton Abbey; I enjoy it, but you always know exactly what everyone's going to say - even the rhythm in which they will say it is measured to the last cadence. With Stoppard on the other hand there's more sense of freedom and 'danger' to the dialogue, more of an edge.

E.g.

“There are times when a woman hates a man. I have walked behind a man’s back and nearly screamed with the desire to sink my nails into the veins of his neck. And Sylvia’s got it worse than I.”

In my book that's great writing...

- The whole thing looks gorgeous, of course; I think that's pretty much a given for BBC period drama.

As to the overall storyline, I think I'll wait to comment until the last episode airs this Friday.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well, it's finished. By the end they were hurrying as elegantly as possible in order to tie the threads. They managed, but only just - it would have benefited from another episode. There is also an increasing lack of cohesion in the final two episodes. I'm ambivalent on this - wonderful acting from the leads, and some of the best production values the BBC has ever seen; on the other hand I'm not sure I'd rush to see it again, as there's no-one particularly likeable (Valentine Wannop, played by a very good young Australian actress, Adelaide Clemens, comes closest, but doesn't have enough screen time).

I'll be very interested to see how this plays in the US. Downton Abbey is such a huge success across the pond, but this is definitely a horse of a different colour... I imagine it could feature heavily in TV awards next year.

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  • 4 months later...
  • 3 weeks later...

No HBO. Reviews are good, though.

There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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  • 3 weeks later...

I just finished this.

I've always liked Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. He's excellent. But this, this is a level of acting I've never seen Cumberbatch perform before. In this series, he's the personification of self-restraint and suppressed passions. He holds to a set of old-world values that have been lost in the early 1900s. He's "the last man standing" for his point of view and lifestyle, born after his time. Rebecca Hall is just as good. I've read a couple reviewers who have read the books, and they say she brings more humanity and complexity to the character of Sylvia than even Ford Madox Ford gave her. I can see it. She plays a woman who changes the air of the room by walking into it. There are moments, lines and speeches where she just tears up the screen. I've been aware of Hall since The Prestige, but I didn't know she was this talented as an actress. If these acting performances had been compressed into a film for the theater, both Cumberbatch and Hall should have received Oscar nominations, but then we wouldn't have been given 5 hours - which seem too short already. (I've mildly enjoyed parts of Downton Abbey, but I'd say there's better script writing, better acting and a more sophisticated story with substance in one hour of Parade's End than in a whole season of Downton Abbey).

The story is a reflection on changing culture and values. There has been much written about how things changed after World War I, but I've never seen the subject dealt with this carefully on film before. There is much for the modern viewer to mock in Batch's Christopher Tietjens. There's humor in how he reacts to different situations and you can't help but feel sympathy for his wife trying desperately to get a reaction from him. But as the story continues, the viewer starts to understand the value of what he stands for. It's strange because it's almost grudgingly admitted (by his wife, by the script writing, and perhaps even by Ford).

Adelaide Clemens is appropriately passionate and spirited for Ms. Wannop, a character whose almost incredible modernistic idealism is a strong contrast to Tietjens' old world conservatism. Rupert Everett is just as cool and sarcastic as ever. Miranda Richardson is charming comic relief, but Rufus Sewell and Stephen Graham both surprisingly provide their own forms of comic relief.

Now, I'm going to have to read the novels.

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James Poniewozik at Time:

... 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 ...

Ian Crouch at The New Yorker:

... Yet, this adaptation of “Parade’s End,” with a screenplay written by Tom Stoppard, aims to be more than a faintly intellectual delivery device for romance. It retains much of the most striking, caustic, and funny dialogue from Ford's novels, and Stoppard’s additions evoke the spirit and cadence of the source material, as when Sylvia, in decrying her husband’s oppressive goodness, sneers, “You’re such a paragon of honorable behavior, Christopher. You’re the cruellest man I know.” And the principal actors capture, in quick and sure ways, the essential qualities of their characters. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Tietjens, pairs fiery, resolute eyes with a wobbly chin, at once conveying the assuredness and fear of an “eighteenth-century man” born two hundred years too late—a man confident in his values, and equally confident that those values no longer hold sway. When he declares, “I’m for monogamy and chastity and for not talking about it,” he seems rather like a cocksure boy saying the lines of an older man, and this is just right: the essential contradiction of Tietjens’s character is this bluster about honor mixed with his own very real sense that he is wrong about most things and has made a mess of life. Julian Barnes describes Tietjens as inhabiting an “inept saintliness,” and, indeed, he is a loveable, and rather willing, martyr ... (See also Crouch's write up on the series, comparing it to Downton Abbey.)

Alexandra Alter at The Wall Street Journal:

... "Parade's End" may test viewers' appetites for highbrow fare at a time when HBO and other networks are snapping up literary rights. As Hollywood has increasingly shied away from difficult literary works in favor of blockbuster comic-book reboots and sequels, a growing number of novels are coming to television instead ... "It's deliberately challenging television," says "Parade's End" director Susanna White, who previously directed BBC adaptations of Charles Dickens's "Bleak House" and Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre." "To get the most of 'Parade's End,' you have to concentrate while you watch it, and think about it and maybe watch it again." ... Despite Mr. Stoppard's efforts to simplify the story, the actors and director occasionally had trouble interpreting the scripts. So Mr. Stoppard hung around during four months of shooting, smoking cigarettes and occasionally supplying extra lines or correcting the actors on their delivery. "He felt very protective about it," says Ms. Hall, who plays Sylvia ... "If he thought something wasn't going in the direction which he imagined, he would say so, and thank goodness he did—it's not exactly the most obvious text." ...

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