Riding Downton's Coattails

AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs

First published as four separate novels (Some Do Not. . ., No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up--, and Last Post) between 1924 and 1928, Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End is one of the earliest and greatest entries in the swan-song-for-old-England genre that became ubiquitous once the 1956 Suez crisis turned Gone With Gunga Din into an ongoing national dirge. The whole cul-de-sac filled with rue is still with us today in, for instance, Alan Bennett's more melancholic plays, not to mention a certain popular soap opera whose glibness I've been known to deprecate while granting I'm still hooked.

But there's something to be said for revisiting Stonehenge. I doubt anyone who's read Ford's masterpiece can ever forget his pained, eternally solicitous hero, Christopher Tietjens, the stolid but suffering incarnation of traditional English values under bombardment both figurative and literal by 20th-century situational morality and the ultimate calamity of World War I. An unacknowledged cribsheet for everyone from Evelyn Waugh (the Sword of Honour trilogy) to John Le Carré (plodding George Smiley and his faithless, glamorous Ann), the book may be the most sophisticated treatment ever of a type that shallower artists are prone to indicting as a stuffed shirt or a dullard. In Ford's version, he's transformed instead into an unlikely Galahad in a derby hat—and, soon enough, a Western Front tin helmet.

So let's thank the fates that Britain's latest Indispensable Actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, has been cast as Tietjens in HBO's five-hour adaptation, which premieres on Tuesday. If not for his and Rebecca Hall's highly resourceful, keenly attuned performances—she's Sylvia, Christopher's mockingly unfaithful wife—it would be embarrassing how blatantly the HBO Parade's End has been designed to emulate the success of Downton Abbey. As opportunism goes, this is roughly on a par with, let's say, redoing Madame Bovary in a bid to attract Desperate Housewives fans now that they're at loose ends.

The marquee-name adapter, Tom Stoppard, does all right in extracting a (mostly) followable storyline from Ford's thickets of elisions, telescoped events, flashbacks and other oblique strategies. But the material doesn't seem to have struck a very deep chord in him. You need a genuine appreciation of stodginess at its most heroic to do right by Parade's End, and that's really more Bennett's turf. Besides, straightening out the narrative deprives us of the ruminative impressionism that turns the book's events all but incidental, except as occasions to dramatize Tietjens' duty-plagued consciousness and his creator's sense of elusive but fundamental changes in the social fabric. Without those larger resonances—which survive mostly as odd, badly assimilated bits of rhetoric—we're basically watching a series of anecdotes about an upstanding clod who's married a bitch for noblesse oblige's sake and pines for happiness with his cute-as-a-button true love, implausibly dewy Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens).

It would take an awfully good director to imbue all this with an equivalent of the book's plaintive majesty, but Susanna White doesn't appear to have much knack for much of anything. Rather than establishing a tone and sticking to it, she simply hits the obvious note in each sequence—this bit is Mournful, this bit is Mordantly Satiric, this bit is Romantic, and so on, with music to match that sounds like the work of a sommelier thoughtfully pairing wines with entrees—and the absence of cohesion turns everything into skits. (She's also got a weakness for fairly hootable visual tchotchkes, including kaleidoscope shots that multiply a character's face to indicate that the hero's memory is doing its thing.) Tietjens's troubles and the contrasting rise of his less scrupulous onetime colleague, Vincent Macmaster (Steven Graham), are treated in such disconnected styles that they don't even register as contrapuntal. Instead, the Macmaster scenes just seem to be shoved in for not especially elevated comedy relief.

White does somewhat better by Tietjens' experiences both behind and in the trenches during the war. Yet they're still just the same damned trenches we've recently seen Downton's Matthew Crawley scrambling around in, along with too many tight-lipped Britons before him. Minus Ford's evocation of psychological delirium, sequences like the one that has a fellow officer challenging Tietjens to write a sonnet the other will then translate into Latin while their camp is under attack—a wonderful reduction of civilized values to just another outlet for hysteria—are likely to strike audiences as merely puzzling.

The flip side is that, for all Stoppard's efforts to make Ford's tale viewer-friendly, Parade's End can't be made to deliver shallow soap-opera jollies as reliably as Downton does. It's too stubbornly bogged in literature for that, leaving the actors looking overworked and, in some cases, ill-used. You'd never guess how gifted Adelaide Clemens is from her performance as Valentine; in scene after scene, she's got nothing to do except simper and look adoring. Even Cumberbatch and Hall, fine as they are, keep having to reprise the same moues. By around the third episode, you'd give anything for Hall not to be obliged to deliver yet another callous, airily amused line with yet another trilling laugh as punctuation—and maybe she would, too.

Then again, this genuinely luscious actress does look wunderbar in post-Edwardian, pre-Jazz Age fashions, providing increasingly welcome diversions from Sylvia's increasingly tiresome personality. And that sort of appeal, of course, is likely to keep the target audience for Parade's End—by which I do not mean Ford Madox Ford fans—perfectly content, despite the miniseries' shortcomings. There are at least a couple of million viewers who will watch practically anything that features upper-crust British characters expressing clipped anguish in dandy costumes amid grand furnishings, and it somehow never occurs to them that, far from exhibiting fine taste in television, they're every bit as easily pleased as the audience for Jersey Shore.  I don't begrudge them those pleasures, honest. But if there's one thing I'm eternally grateful to Julian Fellowes for, it's that he cooked up Downton Abbey's claptrap out of his own head instead of turning a great novel into an infomercial for status-conscious nostalgia.

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