There’s a new British miniseries in town, or at least it’s finally reached HBO. Parade’s End is a visually stunning adaptation of the original novels of Ford Madox Ford by Tom Stoppard for both BBC and HBO, and was originally released in the UK late August 2012. One could go on to think that this is BBC and HBO’s answer to the Downton Abbey craze that struck gold, especially considering that both stories revolve around the plight of the British aristocracy in World War I, but in fact Parade’s End was in production around the same time. Besides, this is an entirely different stylistic choice than Downton; instead of the Crawley’s approachable humor as well as the insight into the staff of Downton, Parade’s End is immensely colder, with walls between characters standing high and even more so toward the viewer.
The caliber of the main cast, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Adelaide Clemens, brings a certain cachet to the show, and the star power certainly reels you in, and sometimes you have to wonder what you got yourself into. Cumberbatch plays Christopher Tietjens, a man so focused on the “gentlemanly manner” that his wife, Sylvia played by the commanding Rebecca Hall, cannot stand his presence. Everything about this marriage is off-putting; Sylvia is unabashedly cheating on poor, emotionally stunted Christopher, and you want him to fight back, but that wouldn’t be the gentlemanly way, now would it?
Ah, but the plot thickens! (This isn’t really a spoiler seeing as though it happened in episode one.) When Christopher is essentially made a laughing stock, he retires to the countryside, as the English tend to do, and plays golf haughtily (you’ll know what I mean). Enter Valentine Wannop, a pixie-haired suffragette protesting along with her friend for the woman’s right to vote (*fist pump*), for one hell of a meet-cute. And the über-complex love triangle ensues… But there is a war afoot, as well as the marital obligations of a gentleman.
Since the story is told out of sequence, it is confusing at times to gauge if Sylvia even likes her husband at the time. Poor Benedict. While the struggles in Downton Abbey are much more situational, the problems that arise in Parade’s End fall on the angsty end of the spectrum of human emotion. And while audiences might be wary of such a complicated and less-approachable story, it is rewarding in that you really delve into the characters’ minds and find what makes them tick. And Downton, for all its heart-wrenching moments (Damn you, Julian Fellowes!) cannot unwind one sole character in the same fashion.
I have a theory that the opening credits of each respective show expose what kind of experience the viewer will have. In Downton Abbey, it is the close-up shots of daily life in Downton, because life goes on regardless of whatever Mary and Matthew are going through. In Parade’s End, the opening titles take place in a sharp, kaleidoscope- type hall of mirrors, alluding to the illusion and misconstrued perceptions of the characters. The significantly colder Parade’s End is at arm’s length from the viewer because you have to make the effort to immerse yourself in his world, something more easily accomplished in viewing Downton. This is where people start peeling away; Tom Stoppard’s risky adaptation is probably more accurate, in terms of uppercrust behavior than the Crawleys’ much more liberal lifestyle.
I think it’s interesting that the BBC partnered with HBO to produce this miniseries; this show definitely speaks to a much more elevated audience, or at the very least a strongly committed one. You’d think this miniseries would be up for Oscar contention, with how serious and grumpy it is! But Parade’s End is a stellar show, if cold and unfeeling at first glance. Whether you wish to take on the challenge of entering the world of these characters bound by propriety, or whether you want to come along for the ride in Downton, the difference lies in your commitment.