Love and War, Stoppard Style: HBO's 'Parade's End'

With the Emmy awards only a few days away, Parade’s End, with five nominations, arrives on DVD in the US.

Parade's End

Distributor: HBO
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adelaide Clemens
US release date: 2013-09-10

When Parade’s End was broadcast in the UK in August-September 2012, the five-hour miniseries was often referred to as “Tom Stoppard’s Parade’s End”. Certainly that attribution is well warranted for this adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy. Stoppard not only rearranged events from the books but added new scenes and dialogue; this television production has been deemed closer to a play than most of his cinematic works.

In the bonus audio, he also explains that he does not consider Parade’s End a five-part (mini)series but rather a serial, because, at the end of each segment, “the story is not nearly over.” He even admits that he wishes he could have ended an “episode” in the middle of a sentence of dialogue. Stoppard did not do that – but his serialized adaptation of Ford’s literary masterpiece nonetheless differs from what audiences may expect from a “typical” Edwardian period piece. As a New York Times reviewer writes, Parade’s End is far less “swoony and nostalgic” than many another “lush Edwardian elegy”, including the popular Downton Abbey.

Depending upon the scene, Parade’s End can be sexual, bullying, or barbed as well as sensual, beautiful, or bittersweet in its depiction of a bygone era. Stoppard’s script adds more battlefield action – whether between highly conservative, tightly wound Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his emotionally demanding, much looser spouse, Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) or the nations entrenched in World War I. Tietjens manages to survive on both fronts, but he is a changed man. The catalyst for much of this internal change is Valentine Wannop (winsomely played by Adelaide Clemens), a young suffragette who challenges Tietjens’ politics and morals as she becomes the third party in a beleaguered romantic triangle.

In the UK, Parade’s End earned the BBC an impressive audience of 3.5 million during its first episode. Cumberbatch’s and Hall’s performances were especially praised. Both actors were nominated for Critics’ Choice Television Awards, and both won Broadcasting Press Guild Awards for their superb acting. Whereas Hall was nominated for a BAFTA, Cumberbatch has been nominated for an Emmy. Stoppard also has been nominated for an Emmy for the script.

The miniseries has been nominated or won a plethora of awards, such as the South Bank Sky Arts Award as Best TV Drama and Broadcasting Press Guild Award as Best Drama Series/Serial. Despite this pedigree, some US viewers may find Parade’s End’s inherent Britishness and sometimes thorny characters make it less easily embraceable than the usual miniseries fare.

In an interview included in this DVD set, Stoppard summarizes Christopher Tietjens by reciting one of the character’s insights about himself: “When a man lives by an outmoded code of behavior, people take him to be a fool, and I’m coming around to their opinion.” Stoppard adds that Tietjens “is a protagonist who is living on the cusp of a sea change in private and public morals.” Most simply, Parade’s End is the story of Tietjens’ slow (sometimes glacially so) transformation, one that involves great loss tempered by the hopeful promise of a new post-war direction for his life.

Britain’s sociopolitical upheavals wrought during the years of the First World War parallel the turmoil in the lives of its three main characters: Sylvia and Christopher Tietjens and Valentine Wannop. Sylvia is a self-centered socialite; Christopher, the intellectual second son from an aristocratic family. They marry because of Sylvia’s pregnancy, but Christopher does not know if the child is his. Sylvia and Christopher are such great opposites that they cannot emotionally reach each other. Whereas Sylvia is ahead of her time, Christopher is chained to long-standing societal expectations.

If Christopher represents the mind – he is a brilliant government statistician, who, for example, corrects an encyclopedia during breakfast – then Sylvia represents the body, which she sexually indulges or deprives in order to get what she wants. Despite actions that wound Christopher and his career, Sylvia does love her husband, but he enters and remains in the marriage out of duty. Valentine’s emotional journey takes her from virginal idealism to mature understanding of the choices she makes, including the desire to become Christopher’s mistress. Although the Valentine-Christopher relationship results in some beautifully filmed romantic moments that illustrate Christopher’s tender nature, their pairing lacks the fire of the embattled relationship between Sylvia and Christopher, likely leaving at least some viewers with the wish that the Tietjenses could work out their differences, given the modernist addition of an effective marriage counselor.

The DVD cover features a black-and-white photograph that aptly summarizes the themes and personalities in this triangle. The Tietjenses are seated opposite each other in the foreground. On the left, Sylvia, expensively dressed and expertly made up, looks down, suggesting an image of propriety, or perhaps regret, that reflects, respectively, the illusion she wants society to believe and the torment in her marriage. Christopher, on the right, looks directly at the camera; his story, after all, is preeminent. Valentine, her eyes fixed on Christopher, remains in the background; her image, however, comes between Sylvia’s and Christopher’s.

The cover shot includes a reflection in glass, which visually foreshadows the miniseries’ motif of reflective surfaces (such as mirrors or broken glass) that illustrates the dichotomy between what is real and what is illusion, both in society and characters. From the kaleidoscopic style of the opening credits to the camera’s emphasis on reflections of fragmented faces or shattered glass strewn across the floor, this visual symbolism underscores dramatic scenes.

At times the symbolism is heavy handed, the dialogue cryptic, the plot hard to follow. Characters enter and depart without an obvious purpose. Scenes often provide mere snippets of the protagonists’ lives and leave the audience to make connections without the assistance of a character’s lengthy exposition. US audiences may not be familiar with this period of British history or all the ramifications of the class system, which can make the characters’ motivations even more difficult to understand. The performances, however, make Parade’s End well worth watching.

Stoppard emphasizes the “internal contradictions” of characters, adding “Nothing is unshaded”. The impressive Hall easily could have played Sylvia as merely a bitch; other adaptations have portrayed her as manipulative to the point of madness. Hall’s Sylvia has a sharp mind and tongue, plus the determination to use both to her advantage. Nevertheless, she also has revealing moments of vulnerability. Audiences can believe that she does love her husband but has no idea how to break through his reserve.

Similarly, Christopher could have been merely priggish and repressed, but Cumberbatch, with a fleeting expression or abortive gesture, subtly illustrates Tietjens’ internal conflict. With Valentine or his young son, Christopher becomes the gentle man behind that very stiff upper lip. Cumberbatch makes Tietjens understandable and even desirable to a modern audience.

Fans of Hall and Cumberbatch likely will be disappointed that the extras on the BBC’s DVD set released in the UK last year differ from the bonus material on the HBO-issued DVDs. There are no commentaries by the actors or director Susanna White on the new release. In addition to the five-hour adaptation, this set includes a lone audio segment with Stoppard. The 28-minute interview (from KCRW’s The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell) is insightful not only about the television production but also the significance of Ford’s books; however, consumers may have expected more.

The timing of this DVD set is auspicious, not only regarding the forthcoming Emmy awards. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival (September 5-15) spotlights three films in which Cumberbatch has a role, including the opening night gala (The Fifth Estate) in which he stars; his work generates a lot of buzz. US audiences who primarily know Cumberbatch from the PBS’ Sherlock or summer blockbuster Star Trek: Into Darkness should even better appreciate the actor’s range after watching this miniseries.

It often may be called Tom Stoppard’s Parade’s End, but Cumberbatch fans may beg to differ with this designation. There may be “no more parades” for Christopher Tietjens, but the parade of fans and critics praising his work is hardly at an end for Cumberbatch.


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