We really enjoyed Parade’s End, a big prestige heritage BBC thing, which probably shows how middle-aged we are becoming.
It gets off to a shaky start, mind you — we found it genuinely hard to make sense of the tone, which fluctuated between broad, uncomfortable comedy and serious drama. By the end of the fifth part, this confusion has vanished, however, and director Suzanna White, scenarist Tom Stoppard and the cast can whisk you from stark WWI tragedy to a kind of CATCH 22 comedy of insanity, a transition as stark as the crosscutting between trench warfare and opulent dinners in country houses.
The going is tricky at first, though. Rufus Sewell, as a mad vicar, is creepily funny and sad, but some inappropriate comedy music nudges the scenes of British social awkwardness — the reverend is apt to shout out obscenities at the most inapposite moments — into really misguided terrain. And for a long time star
Concordian Bumblethatch Bomberduck Kennydutch Benedict Cumberbatch seems quite miscast, not heavy and stolid enough to embody the wise, stout, painfully honorable protag. This leads Cumberbatch to adopt a Churchillian lower lip thrust which sits oddly on his face, making him look a bit like Beaker from The Muppet Show.
Since at least the time of the TV Our Mutual Friend, directors have felt obliged to show how modern they are when doing BBC “mastepiece theater” stuff, and White is guilty of some inexplicable optical effects creating a kaleidoscope of refracted images — this echoes the show’s title sequence, but otherwise feels unmotivated and show-offy. Everything else is very effective, except for a cut to a sweeping crane shot at the end of Ep. 1, which yanks us away from an affecting bit in which Cumberbatch weeps on a horse. I was just getting ready to feel all moved, and then the director had to get in the way.
Rebecca Hall, as the ultimate bitch goddess, tormenting wife to Cumberbatch, is magnificent from the get-go, and that’s what kept us interested. We came for Hall and stayed for Hall and everybody else. Roger Allam is extremely funny as a buffoonish general — remember how good he was as, basically, Christopher Hitchens in V FOR VENDETTA? And Adelaide Clemens, one of those Australians who can do anything, is a delight. Rupert Everett is great — the beard suits. Everyone’s great.
And the kaleidoscope effects are mainly discarded and we get one of those epic dramas that really uses its sweep and runtime to get deeper into the characters, or at least give them more body and duration and call on our affections. The miniseries might be the best form for doing this outside of the novel. Long series always end disappointingly, but minis are sustainable — somebody can cram the whole story into their head and see that it actually works.
Not having read Ford Maddox Ford, original author, I wondered how much Stoppard invented. I expect it’s pretty faithful. But one striking bit seemed to chime with an earlier TS project. Around episode 4 the hero is truly shafted — a series of incidents and misunderstandings and gossip and false reports have seen him blamed for pretty much everything that’s gone wrong for everyone in the story — he’s supposed to be a serial adulterer with a love child and two mistresses and dubious loyalty to his homeland. Absolutely none of it is true, but the pieces of his ruin have been carefully hidden in previous episodes. I remembered BRAZIL, how at the story’s end, Sam Lowrie (Joanathan Pryce) appears in the eyes of the authorities as a dangerous terrorist, all due to a series of administrative errors and misunderstandings. I wonder if Stoppard actually borrowed the idea from FMF. It’s beautully done, anyway.