Parade’s End Review: Benedict Cumberbatch shines in new period drama which is a cut above Downton Abbey – and definitely more witty!
WARNING THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM TONIGHT’S EPISODE OF PARADE’S END. DO NOT READ ON AND CHECK BACK WITH US LATER IF YOU’D RATHER BE SURPRISED THIS EVENING….
Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch recently courted controversy after slamming ITV1′s popular period drama Downton Abbey calling it atrocious, sentimental and clichéd. This outburst was due to the fact that his new drama, Parade’s End, is also set in the early 1910s and focuses on a parade of upper class characters – though in this BBC drama there is little focus on what is going on downstairs. It seems as though the Americans want to be involved in producing their own Downton, so Parade’s End has been co-produced by the BBC and HBO, who seemed to have insisted that this drama look as classy as possible. The other difference to Downton is that Parade’s End is based on a literary source, Ford Maddox Ford’s quartet of novels, and is also adapted by legendary playwright Tom Stoppard so you know that the dialogue will be fairly classy.
Despite this pedigree I initially had a problem getting to know who everybody was, as a series of characters were introduced in the present day but also in a variety of flashbacks, however once I did settle into it I found myself enjoying it immensely. Cumberbatch stars as statistician and the so-called ‘cleverest man in London’ Christopher Tietjens who has a head for figures but is fairly cold when it comes to his emotions, despite him marrying pretty socialite Sylvia played by Rebecca Hall.
Though their initial meeting on a train, which is one of the flashbacks that I mentioned, seems to suggest that there are romantic feelings between the two it later transpires that Sylvia mainly married Christopher as she was pregnant, although he probably isn’t the father. As Sylvia grows increasingly bored by a husband who would rather make corrections in the Encyclopaedia Britannica than pay her any attention, she attempts to make him jealous by spending time with a lot of different men. Eventually Sylvia gives up with her marriage and goes on the run with one of her lovers, Tom Mison’s Potty, but finds that once the excitement of escape has died down living with your lover is about as boring as staying with your husband, so resolves to give Christopher another go though.
It may well be too late though as Christopher is drawn to pretty suffragette Valentine Wannop, played by Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, after he helps her and her friend escape from some policemen following a successful demonstration. He and Valentine meet once again at a breakfast thrown by her eccentric novelist mother, played by a wonderfully over-the-top Miranda Richardson, as he tries to engage her in conversation despite a range of colourful characters constantly interrupting them. The final scenes of episode one see Valentine and Christopher caught in their carriage together with a deep fog engulfing them they decide to spend the night together as her horse won’t go any further. Inevitably they both have strong feelings for each other but due to Christopher being a principled chap he won’t cheat on his wife despite the fact that she has already absconded with another man. The majority of the other characters are also aware that there is a mutual attraction between Christopher and Valentine but worry about his social standing as it could it harm his career were he to start having relations with a suffragette, plus there’s also the issue of the returning Sylvia who declares her attentions to reunite with her husbands.
As I previously mentioned I did struggle with the first fifteen minutes of Parade’s End as there were several jumps forwards and backwards in time which I found rather unsettling, while in addition there was also an endless cast of characters being introduced. I did eventually get into the groove though and once the cracks began to appear in the marriage of Christopher and Sylvia, around the time she starts smashing crockery after declaring her boredom, I sort of knew where the story was going. I was also surprised at the amount of humour in Stoppard’s script as the numerous characters introduced at the breakfast meeting all provided a great deal of laughter whether it be Miranda Richardson’s flighty author or Rufus Sewell’s pale priest who constantly sprouts scripture all of their lines seemed designed to amuse while there was even a little slapstick when the local pastor is thrown from his bicycle by a bolting horse. This combination of character comedy, dramatic moments featuring the suffragettes and the long wistful looks between Christopher and Valentine added up to a second half of the programme packed full of enjoyable moments.
Fans of Sherlock may be a bit shocked to see Cumberbatch playing a rather reserved character who at times feels so detached you struggle to care for him, however as he is the most decent character of the piece, possibly apart from his diminutive Scottish sidekick McMaster played by the currently ubiquitous Stephen Graham, you eventually grow to like Christopher despite his stubborn ways. Though Christopher is a fool for love, as we see through his relationships with the two central female protagonists, he is also a principled and stubborn chap who often lets practicalties stand in the way of his happiness.
Cumberbatch is supported by some of Britain’s finest acting talent including Graham, Richardson, Sewell, Anne-Marie Duff and Roger Allam all of whom play their parts admirably while never detracting from the main characters. For me though the star of the piece is Rebecca Hall whose Sylvia never seems to be able to just settle for the situation she’s in and constantly wants more from her life however she finds herself saddled with a husband who is a lot more intellectual than her and a lover who is too besotted with her for his own good. Possibly Hall’s greatest scene in the first episode is when Potty aims a gun at her to stop her from leaving, she laughs this threat off in a way that would surprise most.
So how much has Parade’s End actually got in common with the other period show that Cumberbatch despises so much? Well both take pride in their period detail with Parade’s End looking sumptuous from the clothing to the sets via the cinematography which brilliantly captures the London of the early 20th century. There is also a scene in the servants’ quarters where they discuss the marriage of Christopher and Sylvia which is very reminiscent of the Downton servants scenes and seems to have been placed there purely so the Americans can be satisfied that they have a series which is close in tone to Julian Fellowes’ successful Edwardian piece. Apart from this though there is little similarity as the characters in Parade’s End are a lot more interesting and the whole thing is a lot more adult in tone, which I suppose you would expect from an HBO co-production, so if I were to compare it to anything it would possibly be Andrew Davies’ Dickens adaptations that appeared on the BBC a few years ago. While I might not agree with a lot of what Cumberbatch said about Downton, as I quite enjoy the show, the ITV production is more of a period soap opera while Parade’s End is much more of a classier, literary affair which may not appeal to everyone but I personally am now engrossed and can’t wait for the next four episodes.
Check back with us when the episode airs and tell us what did you think to Parade’s End? Did you enjoy Cumberatch’s performance? Leave Your Comments Below.
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