I’ve reached the point where I feel like everyone’s seen Downton Abbey except me, which is slightly ironic given the love I have for all things British. There was a recent point when I honestly heard the show referenced on a daily basis.
Given the current popularity it’s attained on this side of the pond, I must recommend the miniseries Parade’s End.
Based on a four-part novel of the same name by Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End is the story of Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Yorkshire man with strong moral convictions who becomes caught in a love triangle between his beautiful but manipulative wife Sylvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall) and an adoring young suffragette named Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens). The story takes place against the backdrop of World War I.
The series starts the night before Christopher and Sylvia’s wedding and we immediately see Sylvia sleep with another man. Christopher learns of Sylvia’s infidelity, but being the honorable man that he is, refuses to divorce her or condemn her for her actions in order to protect her reputation. In the world of Parade’s End, reputation is everything and the wrong rumors can ruin a person.
Sylvia is an interesting character in that she torments her husband, but does so because deep down, she really does love him and wishes he would give her some sort of reaction that shows he genuinely loves her. She wishes he would get openly angry with her for cheating on him and the fact that he doesn’t drives her mad.
Valentine crosses Christopher’s path on a golf course when she interrupts a cabinet minister’s game with a protest for women’s suffrage. It’s clear that Christopher is immediately taken with her, but he refuses to show or act on those feelings.
Parade’s End is part love story, part war story. When The Great War begins, Christopher is called away to serve on several occasions and is ultimately sent to the front lines. The story isn’t so much about the war as it is about what goes on around the war and how it affects the people back home.
All of the characters in this series are complex and multi-dimensional. Sylvia is manipulative and callous, but she also loves her husband despite their completely different worldviews. Valentine is sweet and modest, but she is also Christopher’s mistress in a sense. For a while, I couldn’t decide who I wanted Christopher to end up with. I read the first part of Ford’s book and hated Sylvia then, so I was surprised by how sympathetic I sometimes felt toward her in the TV adaptation. I even grew to like Potty Perowne (Tom Mison), one of the men Sylvia had an affair with. He fought alongside Christopher in the war and was honorable in his own way. Christopher’s best friend and confidante, Vincent MacMaster (Stephen Graham) is overall good-natured, but is willing to take credit for calculations Christopher did at work. He also starts an affair with Edith Duchemin (Anne-Marie Duff) who is otherwise married to a deranged clergyman. Initially vulnerable and timid, Edith takes on a more malicious streak as time passes.
At first, I didn’t think of myself as someone who would be one for English period dramas, but I easily grew attached to these characters and caught up in their stories. After enjoying this series so much, I’ve decided I just may have to make the time to check out Downton Abbey after all.
Parade’s End originally aired as a five-part miniseries on BBC Two in the UK and HBO in the US. The series will re-air with one episode per night on HBO2 West starting on Monday, March 4 at 8 p.m.
My grade: A
Image from the BBC Media Centre.