It's happened every February for the past three years: Downton Abbey concludes its run on PBS and suddenly Anglophilic audiences across the country are left hankering for some more British period drama, stat. HBO is well-aware of this phenomenon, which is precisely why they launched the five-part miniseries Parade's End last night for a three-evening run that wraps up on Thursday. Unfortunately, despite its impressive pedigree, the series probably won't fill that Downton-shaped hole in your heart. It is, however, a terrific cure for insomnia.
Hard as it may be to believe, I take no real pleasure in reporting this news as I'm a fan of practically everyone involved in this production. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard? Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead was my high school drama club jam. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall? Love ol' Cumby in Sherlock and can't wait to see him as
Khan the bad guy in the Star Trek sequel this summer. And Hall is one of Britain's very best working actresses, not to mention off-the-charts gorgeous. Supporting players Miranda Richadson, Janet McTeer and Rupert Everett? Class-acts all, even though I've never completely forgiven Everett for allowing Madonna to blackmail him into co-starring in The Next Best Thing. And while I haven't read the quartet of Ford Madox Ford novels upon which the series is based, I am familiar with the World War I-era author's poetry, as well as his most famous book, The Good Soldier. So yes, individually these elements are mighty; brought together, however, they just lie there on the screen -- handsome to look at, but mostly inert.
The Downton connection is a bit overstated since Parade's End is much more high-minded and dramatically restrained than Julian Fellowes's increasingly silly soap opera. Hence, there are no adolescent "will they or won't they" romances or conveniently-timed illnesses (although the two-hour premiere did feature one almost-car accident that was strongly reminiscent of the one that befell a major category in the Season 3 finale). What we have instead is the sober account of a terrible marriage, specifically the one between wealthy upper-cruster Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch) and his more carefree bride Sylvia (Hall), who doesn't see why wearing a wedding ring should preclude romantic adventures with other people. Less willing to openly sip the sweet nectar of infidelity, Christopher embarks on a Remains of the Day-style non-romance romance with Valentine (Adelaide Clemens, a dead ringer for Carey Mulligan, who was probably the first choice for the part), a suffragette who values women's rights above affairs of the heart. Opening in 1908, the series jumps back and forth in time, but eventually takes its characters through the outbreak of a world war before depositing them on the doorstep of the brave new world of '20s-era Britain.
As the seemingly endless opening two hours of Parade's End droned on and on, I kept flashing to one of my all-time favorite Monty Python sketches, "Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days", a spot-on skewering of prestigious British TV dramas like this one in which an oh-so-refined garden party becomes the scene of a Wild Bunch-style bloodbath. And it's not that I'm cold to this particular genre as a whole; on the contrary, there are a number of BBC-backed literary adaptations that I've thoroughly enjoyed from oldies but goodies like Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown (one of my all-time favorite miniseries) to more recent productions such as that terrific Bleak House serial from a few years back. But much like the Stoppard-penned Anna Karenina that came and went from theaters last fall, Parade's End is a too-calcified adaptation of a Great Work of Literature™. It's so dry, you're practically required to watch it while nursing a cuppa tea lest it get caught in your throat.
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