Judge Gordon Sullivan and his kazoo were at the Labor Day parade's tail end.
England, 1914. Their world was about to change.
It's difficult to measure the impact of World War I. Even though we had a little over two decades to process it, that wasn't nearly enough time to consider just how badly trench warfare changed the world. All that was dwarfed by the enormity of World War II, with its Holocaust and Hiroshima. Keep in mind that some of the best material on World War II only came decades and decades later, after culture had a chance to digest and consider the impact of history. Works like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers (among others) helped many people come to grips with just what happened during WWII, but few go back and make those films about WWI. However, as the 100th anniversary of World War I approaches we're now seeing more and more books, movies, and shows going back to that tumultuous era to give it another look. One example of this trend is the recent BBC/HBO collaboration Parade's End, based on a set of novels by Ford Maddox Ford. It's a solid adaptation that gives the actors plenty of opportunities for drama.
Facts of the Case
Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness) is a statistician working for the British government. He's married to Sylvia (Rebecca Hall, Iron Man 3), a socialite who seems to despise him for his apparent lack of emotion, but from whom he cannot separate for reasons of propriety. Instead, he takes up with Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens, The Great Gatsby), and we watch as all of their lives change in the period surrounding World War I.
Whoever cast Parade's End is a genius at timing. Though all of the cast have some cachet in the world of British television or film—Rupert Everett and Miranda Richardson most famously—in the interim between the production of this series and its debut on Blu-ray, the main trio of actors have starred in some of the biggest films to hit U.S. shores in 2013. Benedict Cumberbatch, already earning raves as Sherlock, starred in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Rebecca Hall shone brightly in her role in Iron Man 3, and Adelaide Clemens added to Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby. I'm sure the show will benefit from a wealth of fans who enjoyed one or more of the actors in their summer blockbusters coming to this to see what else they've done. Of course, having big actors isn't much fun unless they're good actors, and the cast is pitch-perfect here. Cumberbatch has most famously played eccentrics, so it's nice to see him tackle a more restrained, interior character here. Rebecca Hall has often played retiring types, but here she's the vindictive socialite to a tee. Clemens is perfect as the idealistic foil to Hall's cattiness.
The film's other secret weapon is writer Tom Stoppard. It's a monumental task to condense four intricate novels into five hours of television. Stoppard has to compress a lot, and give dialogue to the show where the novel would describe. His efforts are not wasted, as his dialogue tends to shine. More importantly, they give the actors something to work with when creating their characters. Perhaps the biggest complaint about the adaptation is precisely that it feels so good that one wishes it went on a little longer.
Though I'm sure World War I's impact accounts for a lot of the reason for returning to the 19-teens and twenties, the fashion is another good reason, as Parade's End amply demonstrates. Those obsessed with plus-fours and ermine coats will find plenty to enjoy with this adaptation, which appears to spare no expense in bringing the world of post-Edwardian fashion to life. The settings, too, are well rendered. We get lots of British countryside, and when it comes time to show the horrors of World War I, the trenches look muddy and bloody in equal measure. Those who watch costume dramas for the costumes as much as the drama won't be disappointed.
Parade's End (Blu-ray) gets a strong release as well. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers included here are strong. Detail is strong, with lots of nice textures on costumes and the landscapes. Colors are a bit muted (to give an "historical" look), but are otherwise well-saturated. Black levels are deep and consistent, and there's no digital artefacts to complain about. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track keeps dialogue clean and clear while offering some excellent atmosphere during some of the trench scenes.
The set's lone extra is an interview with Tom Stoppard about the adaptation. It's a fine listen, though hearing from the actors would have been a definite plus.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, no one could hope to fit a quartet of novels into five hours of television, and in some ways this adaptation of Parade's End was always going to be quixotic. Fans of Ford's novels are the ones most likely to be offended by everything cut out in the process of adaptation. In a world where Downton Abbey is about to air its thirtieth episode that covers roughly the same time span, it's a shame that Parade's End couldn't get a few more hours to adapt four novels worth of material.
Parade's End is also a perfect example of a certain kind of British drama. Much of the greatest examples of literature from the twentieth century in Britain involve a lot of psychological interiority and subtle transgression in class status. These kinds of conflicts are difficult to translate to the screen. Perhaps more importantly, they can be difficult for American viewers to pick up on. So, when a book might take five pages to describe the myriad ways in which a character has violated some small social taboo and why it enflames another character, the film can only show us a closeup of Benedict Cumberbatch looking conflicted. For those not willing to embrace a particular tradition of storytelling, Parade's End can look like "British people looking conflicted" instead of more explosive drama.
Parade's End is a fine example of British drama. Tom Stoppard embraces the herculean task of adapting four books for five hours of television, and all of the actors give great performances bringing that script to life. Those with a Downton Abbey-sized whole in their lives should consider giving Parade's End (Blu-ray) a rental.
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