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'Parade’s End': Ford Madox Ford’s Masterpiece Comes to the Screen

'Downton Abbey' for grown-ups

HBO/Nick Briggs

Imagine the production values of "Downton Abbey" aimed at a grown-up audience. Think of a movie being five hours long, but made for television. Consider the possibility that after the feeble adaptation he did recently for Anna Karenina, Tom Stoppard has fashioned a script with his customary wit and cunning. Just wait for the babble of the awards season to die, and prepare for an event in television history and a real British movie. Be grateful that we have the BBC and HBO. But don't entirely relax; there are problems. Neither the BBC nor HBO has enough faith in us as grown-ups.

I am talking about Parade's End, a five-part mini-series based on a series of novels written by Ford Madox Ford and published soon after the end of the Great War—Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), and A Man Could Stand Up (1926). The subject of these novels, as Ford declared, was "[t]he world as it ended with the war." Of course, life went on after 1918 and organized death resumed in 1939. We are still here and there are cheerful men and women in Britain making "Downton Abbey" just as there are nostalgists here who watch it. But nostalgia is a plague to history.

As Ford and his central character, Christopher Tietjens, see it, the hope of a world designed to improve, but loyal to a set of older values, is as remote as the dream of victory in the War. Tietjens is the younger son in a line of Yorkshire gentry. They have a great house in that county called Groby. Christopher is already old-fashioned in 1912. He believes that most valuable things stopped in the eighteenth century. But he is married to a woman, Sylvia, who throws a plate of food at him when he utters such stuffy remarks.

Christopher can be an idiot of good form, high manners, and Tory humbug. He is also a brilliant forecaster at the Imperial Department of Statistics who guesses that war will break out in the summer of 1914. His employers marvel at the muddle of so modern a man trapped in the past. Nothing dramatizes his confusion more than Sylvia, the last woman he should have married. But one reason why Tietjens feels the end of the world coming is the disaster of his own life, the way he is misunderstood, the subject of false gossip, and driven close to a nervous breakdown during his Army service on the Western Front. The rationalism of the past and his prowess with statistical forecasts both run aground on his failure to deal with his own emotions. Just as he knows war is coming, and expects that it will be ridiculous, the system he serves is incapable of adopting his intelligence. So he is sent to the front as a captain where he can observe some of his men being blown to bits.

Ford was drawn to putting chumps in his fiction, and that must owe something to how he saw himself. In his masterpiece, The Good Soldier (1915), the story is told by John Dowell, who has become known in literary academia as an "unreliable narrator." Fair enough, but that label is too lofty for Dowell, whose dangerous simple-mindedness is taken advantage of by his wife and by his best friend, the "good soldier." So Dowell is complicit in great damage, and Tietjens, though full of awkward nobility and decency, is not simply kind to horses and servants. He drives Sylvia to distraction, and to casual wickedness.

Tietjens is played in the series by Benedict Cumberbatch, probably the English actor who has most emerged in the last few years. At thirty-six, he has been Peter Guillam in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and he has balanced the stick-in-the mud Tietjens with a mercurial young Holmes in the modernized TV series "Sherlock." He has taken the chance in Parade's End, and been encouraged by his director, Susanna White, not to compromise on Tietjens. Cumberbatch is good-looking, if not radiant, but he has found innumerable ways of making his face flat, pursed, pinched, gloomy, and oppressed by his own reserve. It is a dedicated performance, though in five hours it cannot help but bring out the monotony and the limits in the character. So Cumberbatch reminds one a little of Daniel Craig in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Craig is now so great a star he can be generous or relaxed, and in David Fincher's movie of the first Stieg Larsson book he stands back and lets the film belong to its natural mistress, Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander.

HBO/Nick Briggs
Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens

In Parade's End, similarly, the knock-out owner is Rebecca Hall as Sylvia Tietjens. She is the most pressing reason for staying with this show, but she is the problem, too. Hall is thirty, the daughter of Sir Peter Hall, the stage director, and Maria Ewing, a dramatic opera singer. She is tall and very pretty, and she stole moments of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Frost/Nixon, while being a dutiful romantic attraction in The Town. It was clear that the camera liked her, but in Parade's End she is commanding, glorious, naughty, and far worse. She has seized the opportunity and drawn Ford Madox Ford closer to those women's pictures where Bette Davis or Jeanne Moreau dominated proceedings.

Someone must have known that Tietjens could hardly hold us for five hours, and so the books have been "improved"; and this is where Stoppard's skill comes into focus. In the books, it is never clear why Tietjens marries Sylvia, unless he has a self-destructive urge he cannot deny. She is pregnant, she says, by another man. But in the film there is a key scene where she picks Tietjens up in a train carriage, with dialogue worthy of James M. Cain, and has sex with him, with delight, and a high-angle camera that shows her head and her swan's neck thrown back in ecstasy. Later on, at his marriage, when his dour brother Mark questions him over a union where he is not sure he is father to the coming child, Stoppard has Tietjens remember the "glorious" moment in the train carriage.

Such moments are not just "cinematic"; they can re-shape the material of a film. Ford's Sylvia was meant to be striking:

Immensely tall, slight, and slow in her movements, Sylvia Tietjens wore her reddish, very fair hair in great bandeaux right down over her ears. Her very oval, regular face had an expression of virginal lack of interest such as used to be worn by fashionable Paris courtesans.

She is also capricious, cruel, and vengeful. She has a fine moment in the book and the film when she realizes how stultifying Christopher's propriety can be. Yes, she has behaved like a bitch, going off with another man after the marriage, and then returning when she is bored. So why won't Christopher call her a bitch? She wants to defile and disabuse Tietjens, and she means to cut down the Groby tree, a great cedar, because she knows how attached he is to it. She sees how natural, and dull, it is likely to be if Tietjens does go off with Miss Wannop, a young woman he encounters when she stages a suffragette demonstration on the golf course where he is playing (of course he despises golf).

Ford tried to convince us and himself that Valentine Wannop was the mate for Tietjens, and at first she is presented as a free-thinker and the spirit of kindness and patience. Dull enough for Christopher? Maybe, but too plain for the camera. The actress (Adelaide Clemens) seems to know that hers is a thankless role, cannon fodder for Hall's Sylvia. You see, it is so hard for a beautiful woman to be hateful in a movie. She may do bad things, but one sly glance at the camera and that game is shot. Hall is dressed like the most fashionable women in Europe, in ways that ravish the eye but leave many doubts about how her dresses are being paid for.

She is also undressed. In the early 1920s Ford did not say so in his books, but there is an extended scene in the film where Tietjens finds Sylvia in her bath. She stands up and challenges him with the breasts that belong to Hall. And if we notice that-and I think we do-then Christopher is either a chump for not looking, or someone in whom that railway carriage glory might be rekindled. Thus the most interesting thing about the movie is something that does not occur to Ford: that against all reason, Sylvia and Christopher remain attracted to each other and mysteriously devoted to l'amour fou. Whereas Tietjens as Ford wrote him is not mad enough to believe in love. He hardly mentions it.

So the brightest feature of the film is in defiance of the novels. At which point, one has to wonder what Parade's End is all about. The writing and the direction are adroit and intensely cinematic. But that is not right for Ford, who generally kept an honorable plainness as a writer (The Good Soldier excluded, which is electric, savage, and frightening). The film is packed with good performances: Janet McTeer as Sylvia's mother; Rupert Everett as Mark Tietjens; Miranda Richardson as Valentine's mother; Roger Allam as a befuddled general; Rufus Sewell as a mad clergyman; Stephen Graham as the conniving MacMaster; and so on. But British television does supporting parts with ease and understanding. They are allowed to be as odd, nasty, or endearing as you like. It's with the leading figures that the needs of the show go astray. So Sylvia becomes an adorable femme fatale, good enough to alter Rebecca Hall's career, and Cumberbatch will be forgiven for the ingrowing restraint of his Tietjens.

The glory on screen lies in the usual places: in Hall's breasts and the very rapid shifts in her expression-and in the blessed clothes and décor. The trench scenes settle for the spectacular mock-ups at the Imperial War Museum instead of the real horror, but the top hats, the furniture, and Sylvia's dresses-they are to die for. The stylistic signal comes at the outset with a ceiling-level tracking shot that sees a chandelier, flowers, a maid, a table and chairs, and a white satin dress waiting to be worn. This is the texture of "Downton Abbey," and the way all these serials overlap with shows such as "Antiques Roadshow." They are advertisements for the accessories of the past. They exemplify the helplessness of a kind of cinema that cannot see past décor to the decay in that prettily equipped society.

Ford wrote a fourth novel for the series, The Last Post, in 1928, which tried to wind up the narrative. It has Tietjens and Valentine together, expecting a child. But there is little action in its lament for the world that got the chop in the Great War. Many literary authorities have thought The Last Post a mistake. Graham Greene, an admirer of Ford, said it was a "disaster" and omitted it from the one-volume Parade's End. Stoppard and the BBC have followed suit for understandable reasons. But this leaves something like a happy ending, which is neither Ford nor just. Of course the audience for these period revels expects the endings to be as comfortable as the sofas and the clothes. Thus, British history and the unappeasable edge of literature have been placed in a kind of catalogue co-sponsored by the Victoria & Albert Museum and Harrods. Really, there ought to be a way of getting Sylvia's clothes at an off-the-rack price.

There should also be a way of saying that Christopher Tietjens is poor company and invariably wrong about life. The Great War did much damage to European society, and it killed the long dresses Rebecca Hall wears. But a lot of the damage needed doing, and Hall knows when to drop the dress.