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Recap: Benedict Cumberbatch & Rebecca Hall Shine In First Part Of Period Miniseries 'Parade's End'

by Oliver Lyttelton
August 25, 2012 12:59 PM
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Parade's End Part One
Major spoilers ahead, for those waiting to see the show on HBO in the fall.

The specter of "Downton Abbey" has been present in the run up to the broadcast of BBC and HBO's new period drama "Parade's End," which aired its first episode in the UK last night (it'll come to the US cable network in the near future, though no exact date has been confirmed yet). Both are lavish period tales in the run up to, midst and aftermath of the first world war, and the star of the latter, Benedict Cumberbatch, didn't help matters much when he labelled the second season of 'Downton' "fucking atrocious" in a recent interview.

In fact, the comparisons are a little overblown. 'Downton' and "Parade's End" (an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's cycle of novels, often labelled as among the finest literary achievements of the 20th century, written for the screen by the great Sir Tom Stoppard, and directed by Susanna White, who was also behind "Bleak House" and "Generation Kill") might share a loose genre, but on the strength of the first episode, they couldn't be more different -- 'Downton' is a soap, for better or worse, while "Parade's End" is a fearsomely intelligent, deceptively funny epic that, if it can keep up this level of quality, will likely be one of the best things on television all year.

Things begin in Paris in 1908, as the soon-to-be-married Sylvia (a phenomenal Rebecca Hall) romps with a married lover (Jack Huston, of "Boardwalk Empire"), even as her fiance Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch), a buttoned-down government statistician, and younger brother of an aristocratic family, leaves London, telling his best friend Macmaster (Stephen Graham) that he "doesn't even know if the baby's mine."

Benedict Cumberbatch Parade's End

Clearly, it's something of a shotgun wedding, and both seem a little reluctant; she refers to her future husband as "that ox," and Tietjen's brother Mark (Rupert Everett) tells him he's been "trapped by that papist bitch." But married they nevertheless are (probably pushed through by Tietjens remembering their first encounter, fucking on a train within moments of meeting), and three years later, they're back in London, with their son Michael having nightmares. Christopher clearly adores the boy, Sylvia barely acknowledges him (we're not sure they interacted once in the episode), instead focusing her attentions on winding up her husband and mother (recent Oscar nominee Janet McTeer), and the latest in a long string of lovers, Potty Perowne (Tom Mison).

Sylvia admits that she's desperate for her husband to notice her dalliances (telling a friend that "I want to shake him"), and soon he does exactly that, as she leaves for France with Potty. Heartbroken, Christopher sends his son to live with his sister, and goes with McMasters (an aspiring writer and critic) to play golf in the countryside with some society high-ups, including General Campion (Roger Allam) and government minister Waterhouse (Tim McMullan).

The course is raided by a pair of suffragettes, including Valentine Wannop (Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, the successful product of an attempt to simultaneously clone Carey Mulligan and Abbie Cornish), who turns out to be the daughter of a friend of Christopher's father. He aids in their getaway, clearly intrigued by her, and later meets her at the house of a demented rector (Rufus Sewell, in a lovely, against-type cameo), whose wife (Anne-Marie Duff) Macmasters is enamored of.

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  • Sandy | September 10, 2012 4:18 AMReply

    Just saw this, and then immediately watched again. A wonderful production with talented, inspired performances. I thoroughly enjoyed it. May just have to read the novels, now.

  • Borj | August 26, 2012 12:52 PMReply

    In the hands of a lesser actor the character of Tietjens could have remained a one-dimensional figure. Repressed emotions don't translate well on-screen, they just come across as wooden. And I am thanking the genius that is Cumberbatch and the little twitches he does with his face for bringing one of my literary heroes to life.

  • Diana | August 26, 2012 12:07 PMReply

    Rebecca Hall was fantastic.

  • Diana | August 26, 2012 9:42 AMReply

    A correction: Dirk Brosse did NOT compose the music in Neil Jordan's "The Good Thief", merely conducted. I think you'll find the composer there was Elliot Rosenthal (a frequent Michael Mann and Neil Jordan collaborator), who is infinitely more talented.

  • Diana | August 26, 2012 9:42 AMReply

    A correction: Dirk Brosse did NOT compose the music in Neil Jordan's "The Good Thief", merely conducted. I think you'll find the composer there was Elliot Rosenthal (a frequent Michael Mann and Neil Jordan collaborator), who is infinitely more talented.

  • Cori | August 26, 2012 5:25 AMReply

    I have finally realized why Hall didn't work here. For me, anyways. She's like Cumberbatch in a sense, you know, they look intelligent that's why they usually play intelligent and sophisticated characters. Sylvia is neither sophisticated nor intelligent. She's a shallow wh**e. Totally miscast.

  • Lizzie | August 25, 2012 9:41 PMReply

    I thought Rebecca Hall was amazing and the best thing in Parade's end. such an underrated actress.

  • Mark | August 25, 2012 7:58 PMReply

    Goddamn! Downton Abbey is fine but the acting in Parade's End is just... I can't coherently explain it. Hall and Cumberbatch are ace! And don't you guys think Valentine looks like Carrey Mulligan/ Michelle William? It's freaking me out.

  • Tom | August 25, 2012 7:12 PMReply

    I love Rebecca Hall but there's something unnatural to her Sylvia. I don't know, it just feels inauthentic. My stand-out for the episode was Rufus Sewell. The breakfast scene was hilarious!

    And I have to give a huge amount of props to Cumberbatch because if his character is played by another actor I am sure Christopher will come across as wooden. (Like, you know... Eddie Redmayne in Birdsong). The guy knows how to show repressed emotion. Great casting!

  • behati | August 25, 2012 6:45 PMReply

    @ BPIC - I agree with you 100% but to Rebecca Hall's credit she did do a good job with Parade's End. Having said that, I've never thought much of her as an actress and still dont. Yes, she has done some good stuff but the parts that she's usually cast in, she comes across as really one dimensional....they're all moody, miserable type characters, she doesn't seem to know how to play any other type of character. But hey, each to their own...I just happen to think she's overrated.

  • Keren (pronounced: Karen) | August 25, 2012 6:40 PMReply

    First of all, I know this will be a huge success because the incredible Benedict Cumberbatch is there. (I usually have that additude on things. I say, "ermm.. It's not amazing because ben isn't in there" haha) And I really can't wait to watch because I live in America. Do you know when we will get to watch it? Benedict is beyond talented. He brings life to each and everyone of his characters. He gives feeling to them. He is brilliant, adorable, kind and above all Perfect!
    Everyone aggress say "I".

  • bpic | August 25, 2012 3:30 PMReply

    Playlist, please stop overrating Rebecca Hall ( yes she was good in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). She has some talent, but she is incredibly boring . She never lights up a movie screen or a tv screen. Now , I agree Cumberbatch is brilliant. I would watch that guy read a phone book.

  • Betsy | August 25, 2012 3:02 PMReply

    I adored the first episode and couldnt find fault with it at all. Stoppard is making us work hard but the books are classics and deserve to be treated with respect. I am in awe at Cumberbatch. I've never been so impressed by an actor. There's nothing he cant do. I loved his chemistry with Adelaide Clemens. They were very sexy together.

  • I seriously hope you guys ross douthat | August 25, 2012 2:34 PMReply

    Stoppard isn't really right-wing, it's more that in his 1970s heyday a lot of British theatre types were on the far left. He's a liberal, and for quite understandable reasons -- check his background -- has no time for Communists. Whether he sympathizes fully with Cumberbatch's character on that score I don't know -- I doubt it, but it's a story that allows for nuance and mixed sympathies.

    I liked almost everything about this episode but felt the opening scenes were a bit confusing. We didn't really need the flashbacks to their first meeting and I missed why they were getting married in Paris? Moreover when they were in the carriages I thought it was London. But that is all quibbles. The night-time carriage ride was terrific, and so was Stephen Graham.

    Obviously so was BC. Rebecca Hall has an incredibly hard-to-like (but not too hard to look at -- may as well get it out there) character but I guess she does a good job doing that.

  • not Bridget | August 25, 2012 5:17 PM

    Don't waste too much energy on the Last Tory characterization. From American Kenneth Roxroth (we Americans bought more copies of "the Tietjens series" than the Brits did.)
    "As the books appeared, they were known as “the Tietjens series” after Ford’s hero, and imperceptive critics made such of Tietjens’ remark that he was “the last Tory.” This label has injured both the understanding and the sale of the novel. Tietjens is a troubled, compassionate, gently sardonic man, and that phrase is the most wry of all his comments on his personality. "

    Of course we needed the flashbacks to the first meeting of Sylvia & Tietjens. I'm one of the folks who have read the books. In one scene, Tietjens has a brief memory of meeting her in a rail car--when she seduced him she could convince him he "Had To" marry her. She was a bit older & he was totally inexperienced with women....

    Very good so far......

  • madoxfordfan | August 25, 2012 1:45 PMReply

    The series has a refreshing and people who like being spoon fed will struggle but I simply adored it. Cumberbatch is phenomenal.

  • holly | August 25, 2012 1:43 PMReply

    Please do some research Cumberbatch has already done a TV interview where he denies the downton comments

  • Eoin Daly | August 25, 2012 1:24 PMReply

    Really you gave this first part an A- grade. I watched it too and thought that it was ok andwould probably give it a B grade. The story seemed to move to fas for me and even though I liked Cumberbatch, I had a hard time watching Hall as I think she is sort of miscast. In no way are these two actors doing their finest work in their career (Cumberbatch "Sherlock", Hall "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"). I thought Clemens came out as a very strong character like Cumberbatch did and they had some great chemistry together. I shall see how the next four weeks turn out but the supporting cast like McTeer look to make more of an impression. I guess the biggest problem I had was the editing by Kristina Hetherington & Jason Krasucki was toop quick and turned me off. The direction by White and writing by Stoppard was very good probably the best thing about the first episode. I cannot wait till next week where it looks like war will play a bigger part which ofcourse will get me to watch,

    Episode Grade: Episode #1: B (MVP: Benedict Cumberbatch)

  • playlister | August 26, 2012 5:57 AM

    I'm still waiting for Cumberbatch's Star Trek role and his Smaug and The Necromancer in The Hobbit because what do we know, right? He may be a genius himself and may actually surpass his phenomenal Sherlock. With regards to Hall, she's good but she has a lot of potential to be great given a meaty role. And Sylvia Tietjens is not one of them, unfortunately. Let's wait and see.

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