If you want to watch this for Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s great in it, but be warned: to play Christopher Tietjens properly, he abandons almost all of his vanity and makes his face as unattractive as he is able, and attempts to make his body appear hulking and clumsy.

Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End, as is usual with Ford Madox Ford, has an unbelievably acute sense of how humanity operates, and is not hopeful about it. People cheat, and then manage to be worse to each other when they are not cheating. Totally inaccurate gossip ruins lives because of malice and laziness, not necessarily in that order. And despite the monumental efforts of many, the Great War was unfairly, desperately, but also bureaucratically, horrible. Somehow, Tom Stoppard’s screenplay manages to capture almost all of the novels’ uncomfortable perspicacity without stumbling into clumsy exposition. But that is perhaps unsurprising, because Tom Stoppard is a genius.

Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch) holds a minor but important position in the Department of Imperial Statistics. He is a large blond man from Yorkshire, scrupulously, even maddeningly exact, and unwisely generous. His wife, Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), is a perfect portrait of the type of woman who can get away with everything from general obnoxiousness up because she is so exceedingly lovely. She runs away with a poor sap called Potty Perowne (Tom Mison, with a fussy mustache). Christopher always thinks ahead and is unfailingly decent to and about her; that, in combination with her beauty, means that everyone thinks that she is a saint. The same people immediately believe that Christopher has any number of mistresses, including a young suffragist called Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens).

He of course does not. He would like to, but he is too much of the Tory, and nothing at all of the hypocrite. Instead, he does his job, lends money to his friend McMaster (Stephen Graham), helps everyone he can, and finally becomes a reluctant but capable officer. He sounds perfect, perhaps, but there is an excessive rigidity about him that is troubling–in Ford’s perfect description, he is the type of Tory who would never lift a finger except to say “I told you so.”

The production is near-perfect. Time passes in the shapes of skirts and hats; Morris wallpapers cede to muddy trenches; a glitzy party in what I believe is Lord Leighton’s house gives way to a sad billet near the Front. One might find the pacing slightly slow, but it is in the service of actual drama rather than the manufactured kind. As with Brideshead Revisited, a feature film of this would be heavy-handed and dreadful.

Cumberbatch gamely wears a uniform two sizes too large and screws up his face so that it is not ludicrous when Miss Wannop tells him he is not so terribly ugly after all. Hall’s glorious halo of hair makes her believable as the spiteful femme fatale who is never so recognized. Graham and Anne-Marie Duff (as his wife), are by turns arrogantly social-climbing and cringingly pusillanimous. Not grateful parts, but well-acted. The rest of the large cast also performs admirably; a few are in parts that, even in the novel, are slightly two-dimensional to throw the three main figures into sharper relief.

It’s terrific.

Stray observations:

  • Every single thing Rebecca Hall wears is beautiful.
  • Rufus Sewell is perfectly cast as the gorgeous but deranged and oversensual Fr. Duchemin.
  • Denis Lawson has a small part!

Director: Susanna White
Rating: equivalent to TV-MA, I’d definitely say
Length: 287 minutes
Score: 5/5

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