Published Oct 30, 2013Though overshadowed by The Good Soldier within the literary lexicon, those that are familiar with Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy, Parade's End, often cite it with high praise, noting its singularity in affirming the withdrawal of women from male authority in the early twentieth century. Moreover, though it's a love triangle story situated before, during and after World War I, the complexities—both psychological and sociological—stem from the integration of character type with wartime climate, constructing a tapestry of ideological change, both in a private and public capacity.
Tom Stoppard's HBO Miniseries' adaptation is exceedingly conscious of thematic necessity, injecting occasional narrative liberties to make visual the internal dialogue making the book cohesive. It's a linear journey, starting before the war with the marriage of civil servant (and government statistician) Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the pregnant socialite Sylvia Satterthwaite (Rebecca Hall). Their romance is rapidly defined as ill-fated, with speculation about the paternity of their son looming in the periphery and an eventual affair on her part leading to reluctant forgiveness from the staunch Tory—and exceedingly traditionalist—Christopher. Their relationship becomes one of cold necessity, with her finding joy in manipulating his rigid moral sensibilities and him refusing any sort of compassion or kindness.
By the end of the first of five episodes, the overriding emotional arc is established through the introduction of young suffragette Valentine (Adelaide Clemens), whose passion for women's rights and progressive politics simultaneously contradict and compliment the single-minded nature of Christopher's guiding sense of rightness. But, as is the central quandary involving the moral cultural shift following World War I, Tietjens is sworn to his marital oath, never consummating his feelings for this new, more suitable, idealistic companion.
What's most effective about this oft-subdued melodrama are the trio of characterizations. Though all three characters are easily defined by political or ethical signifiers, they're also riddled with contradictions and repressed feelings. Christopher's trajectory is the focus, eschewing passion in favour of maintaining bigger picture social integrity until the war chips away at his ideals and his interest in personal punishment as a thing of necessity. Similarly, Valentine's aggressive individualism, fighting tooth and nail for the vote, becomes obscured when she finds that getting what she won't necessarily quell her ambitions. Her progressive disposition is then complicated by her intense love of a married man, simultaneously rendering her desires traditionalist and morally vague.
More interesting, yet less successfully executed, is the motivational foundations of Sylvia. Initially, her infidelities and playfully callous handling of social propriety gives her a villainous sensibility. Even though we've progressed from the rigid landscape of the early 1900's, the dominant perspective on cheaters—particularly women—hasn't changed a great deal. What Stoppard tries to do—and what Ford Madox Ford injected into his text—is inject some ambiguity into this character portrait, making her seemingly indulgent whimsies play as a series of desperate attempts to ignite some feeling or passion in a husband that passively punishes her, neither kicking her out nor actively forgiving. There's a sense—one that's clarified and articulated by the fourth episode—that her actions, as hyperbolic as they may be, stem from her need for active romantic, passionate love, which is something her extremely conservative husband is incapable of offering.
Unfortunately, the emotional ire of this situation is diminished by the eventual handling of the situation and the rather glib resolution for her character. This is also the case with the actual depiction of war throughout the miniseries, as well as the handful of secondary characters and minor conflicts. While war and what it represents ultimately motivates the change that propels the story forward, its vacillation between cheap cliché and stagey banality as presented softens the intensity of the thematic juxtaposition. This is also the case with a secondary romance between Tietjens friend Vincent Macmaster (Stephen Green) and the married Edith Duchemin (Anne-Marie Duff); it's clear their story is intended to reiterate the social changes depicted within the story, but since they're mostly archetypal characters that merely go through the motions, their sidebar romance just sort of gets in the way of everything else.
As discussed on the radio interview with Tom Stoppard included on the Blu-ray, he had a difficult time bringing together the internal universe of the story in a visual capacity. Though he stayed true to the basic impetus of Parade's End, capturing the breadth of change in the 1920's, he didn't make the secondary storylines or surround minutiae pop or feel kinetic, instead having the unfortunate disposition of being narrative necessity. It's a flaw that distinguishes this 5-episode series as commendable and effective rather than actively great or memorable. (HBO / Warner)