‘Parade’s End’: A Plum Role for Benedict Cumberbatch

A moment in the premiere hour of Parade’s End explains the title in one deft stroke. In the midst of a luncheon with a friend and colleague, the brilliant but conventional government statistician Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) receives a letter from his free-spirited wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall). In blunt terms, she asks his leave to come home to Britain after deserting him for a fling with another man on the Continent. As Tietjens details a grimly rational plan for reestablishing a semblance of domestic stability upon her return, his more impulsive Scottish colleague McMaster (Stephen Graham) bluntly wonders why Tietjens does not simply divorce his wife for her serial infidelity. “For a gentleman,” replies Tietjens haltingly, “there is such a thing as… call it, ‘parade’.”

The BBC/HBO miniseries, adapted from Ford Madox Ford’s epochal tetralogy of 1920s novels, goes on to depict a long “parade” of failing conventional propriety. Tom Stoppard’s teleplay amplifies the frosted, caustic wit of the British upper class while maintaining the original’s core themes. The trajectory veers towards the titular expression of finality, as the inherited privilege of the Gilded Age and vestigial Victorian behavioral codes are eclipsed by the slaughter of the First World War and the profound social changes it engendered. Tietjens embodies initially the imperial establishment’s standard of gentlemanly self-possession, gradually becoming a harbinger of its agonizing downfall.

What a plum role for Cumberbatch this Tietjens is. Launched to prominence as a beloved 21st-century Sherlock Holmes, the fantastically named English actor here slips into the skin of another furiously logical genius who struggles to connect emotionally with those closest to him. Though the role is not wholly outside of his comfort zone, Cumberbatch rarely makes the obvious choice with the character, especially when Tietjens sees action at the Front and returns with acute shell shock (very literally expressed, in one haunted monologue about the varieties of explosives used in artillery bombardment). Quavers and hesitations in his Received Pronunciation utterances bespeak a considered intellect before the trenches, afterwards suggest mental trauma, and Cumberbatch gestures to the shift without ever telegraphing it.

More telegraphed is the long-germinating romance between Tietjens and Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a suffragette in the orbit of her novelist mother (Miranda Richardson). Their awkward sort-of courtship, stretching from an English countryside comic tableau on a golf course to an elegiac fog-bound carriage rides, ignites vigorous society gossip as well as Mrs. Tietjens’ complex antipathy. But it never rises above a mild frisson onscreen, a fizzling result attributable to Clemens’ scant indications of Valentine’s motivations and the obsessively detail-oriented Cumberbatch’s unsuitability as a romantic lead in any traditional sense.

Contravening the wistful longing of his scenes with Clemens, Cumberbatch finds a productive tension with the more uncompromising firebrand Hall. Tietjens meets and apparently impregnates Sylvia on a train (though she has other concurrent lovers and the resulting child may not be his), the uncharacteristically torrid sexuality of his tryst contrasted with still shots of pre-coital physical tells on both their parts. The settled reality of their marriage turns out to be decidedly non-torrid, and her extramarital liaisons are the obvious corollary.

Rather than be consumed in the flames of her conceited, unfaithful hedonism, Sylvia emerges as the most fascinating character in Parade’s End by several degrees. She disdains her husband’s conservative streak when compared with her own heedless pursuit of self-fulfillment, but their relations are also more intricate. Sylvia is jealously possessive of Tietjens even while cultivating a back garden of gentleman admirers and lovers, but she disdains his old-fashioned monogamy and unwillingness to use her as roughly as she uses him. She is bored by his correct officiousness and resents his composure, yet stays with him and defends him, perhaps for money, perhaps for comfort and security, perhaps even for some lingering, strangely expressed remnant of love.

Or perhaps Sylvia maintains her own version of Tietjens’ vaguely sketched but tacitly understood “parade.” In the wake of the contemporaneously set but infinitely frothier Brit costume drama Downton Abbey, not to mention a couple of centuries of literature focused largely on the same theme, a further delineation of the strained limitations of social propriety in Britain may seem superfluous. But Parade’s End, despite character-based faults and multiple narrative cul-de-sacs, does come around to revealing the consequences of maintaining public status and reputation at the cost of personal realization.

RATING 7 / 10