Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

HBO’s ‘Parade’s End’: All dressed up with nowhere to go

Nick Briggs - Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Christopher Tietjens and Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia in HBO’s five-hour miniseries “Parade’s End.”

If nothing else, HBO’s lush but excruciatingly inert five-hour miniseries “Parade’s End,” which has been faithfully adapted from a quartet of novels by Ford Madox Ford, makes clear just how much of a 21st-century invention “Downton Abbey” truly is.

Both dramas are about high-class problems of the British upper crust before and after World War I. But “Downton’s” story arcs come and go with the speed and silliness of today’s tweets. “Parade’s End” is about one gentleman’s domestic issues — he would like to have an affair with a woman he’s not married to — stretched out over five years and made worse by those around him clinging to their Victorian social mores while the rest of the world carries on and marches forward. (“Parade’s End” also makes “Downton Abbey” look like total nonsense, but then, what doesn’t anymore?)

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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HBO has nevertheless scheduled “Parade’s End,” which it co-produced with BBC, to air three nights (beginning Tuesday), right in “Downton’s” still mournful, Matthew-less wake. Anglophiles hoping for an easy, post-Crawley fix are in for an arduous journey. These two dramas just aren’t anything alike.

That’s both good and bad news. Snail-paced and difficult to relate to, “Parade’s End” feels twice as long as its total running time. And yet it’s an exquisite and thoughtful sort of slog, with sound British pedigree and bone structure. Sir Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay, making the most of characters who are, in the long run, almost inscrutably miserable and hard to like.

“Sherlock’s” Benedict Cumberbatch (or, as we like to call him around here, Bandersnatch Cummerbund) stars as Christopher Tietjens, a well-regarded statistician from a wealthy estate, who hastily marries Catholic-raised socialite Sylvia (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s” Rebecca Hall) when he believes she is carrying his child.

Sylvia, a demanding, temperamental and lascivious beauty, sets about making Christopher miserable. Decades before Maury Povich and a DNA kit could have quickly cleared this up, Tietjens (hardly anyone calls him Christopher) nobly accepts the notion that the baby boy is likely not his, a scandal treated as an open secret in his circle of friends and relatives.

This is how they roll in “Parade’s End”: People never say what’s on their minds or do much about their problems. It’s not long before Tietjens meets Valentine (Adelaide Clemens), a young Suffragette who pines for him and is willing to be his mistress; that wish goes unfulfilled as the years drag on, even though everyone just assumes they are having an affair.

Stoppard’s eloquent screenplay doesn’t help much when it comes to readjusting our moral clocks to Ford Madox Ford’s original settings: Tietjens and Sylvia meet on a train and immediately get down to business, and yet the remaining 200 hours (it seems) of the miniseries are fixated on the rules of proper British marriage, where divorce is unthinkable and affairs merely unspeakable. Characters rarely explain why they feel the way they feel. The dialogue, in an effort to fill in this yawning chasm of emotionless rigor, becomes laughably satirical in spots.

Even with an unfortunate blond dye job, Cumberbatch is well cast, drawing on his innate remoteness and built-in stiff upper lip. He does handsome and doleful together in a nice blend. As the conniving and spoiled Sylvia, Hall is the only truly watchable character throughout the miniseries, even if you keep hoping that scarlet fever or some other “Downton”-esque calamity will strike her down. “Parade’s End” also sports an impressive, Who’s-Who-in-British-drama supporting cast, including Janet McTeer, Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett.

The back third of the miniseries sends Tietjens off to war, first as a pencil-pusher, then to the trenches, where the horrors of the battlefield just give our man more time to brood on his heartache. (The war sequences are intriguingly contrarian and unpatriotic, subtly lampooning Britain’s military might as a bumbling bureaucracy.)

The pieces are all there, but a puzzle remains unsolved: What, besides pedigree, enticed HBO to help produce “Parade’s End”? Even in its worst recent movie projects (the dreadful “Hemingway & Gelhorn,” say, or “The Girl”), the network still puts a primacy on plot and movement. Even Todd Haynes’s lavishly long “Mildred Pierce” understood that momentum was key. “Parade’s End” is radiant with class, but it has almost no sizzle and very little sauce; it’s difficult to think of who will tune in for three nights in a row.

And yet I know they’re out there, tea cozies at the ready. The simple beauty of such a project is irresistible; “Parade's End” offers the slightest payoff for a literate viewer (perhaps even those who read all of Ford’s “Parade’s End” novels) who has the patience for the story of a love triangle that, by today’s standards, barely rates a sigh. This is an epic about people who are all dressed up with nowhere to go. It should be watched by people with even less to do.

Parade’s End

(five hours) begins Tuesday at 9 p.m. (parts 1 and 2) on HBO. Continues Wednesday at 9 p.m. (parts 3 and 4) and concludes Thursday at 9 p.m. (part 5).

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