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Movies Parades EndThe 5 hour HBO/BBC mini-series, Parade’s End, (2012) with Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens, is a miracle of lossless compression, of the kind that enables large sound or audio files to be reduced in size with little discernible difference in human perception.  Not that there aren’t losses of course from the 4 volume, 780 page novel, but for both reader and non-reader of the books, the movie is a self-contained, extremely well done whole, with virtually all the characters, events and themes, cutting away the post war lives of volume four which, in fact, some editors and critics do not include with the other three.

The novel, which not a few have called one of the greatest of modern British writing, begins sometime in 1912, to carry a host of characters through the Great War, some in the trenches, some at society balls, and ends in 1919 after war’s end.  The triangle of tension that works its way into us, and carries us through the years is between Christopher Tietjens, a very smart, second son of a wealthy landowner, Sylvia Satterthwaite Tietjens, [Rebecca Hall] his wife who must be adored, or exact revenge if she is not, and Valentine Wannop, [Adelaide Clemens] whom Tietjens protects when she and another suffragette disrupt play on the golf course of his gentleman’s club and whose relations with him are more imagined by others than real.

The Susanna White directed serial, as Tom Stoppard who wrote the screen play prefers to think of it, has been referred to as the “thinking man’s Downton Abbey.” As does its better known sibling, Parade’s End does an excellent job of its period costuming, horse-drawn carriages, interiors and manners. It has the added benefit of Ford Madox Ford’s astute command of the social lives and psychology of the English upper classes during the the deep and widespread tremors of the war years. Even before the first shots of August, 1914, were fired writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound as well as  social commentators were seeing the end of stability, the almost century long peace and progress which had brought comfort and certainty to the landed gentry, the rising mercantile class and the aristocracy, becoming, or needing to become, more unsettled. Although agitation for Irish independence, trade union work stoppages and militant suffragettes with petrol bombs and prolonged hunger strikes were not entering the bubble of nicely served breakfasts and afternoon teas, they were casting long shadows across it. The war sped the instability mercilessly.

Tietjens, as written by Ford, is a whip smart statistician, unencumbered by social graces or the need for them.  He is unostentatiously wealthy, the heir to Grumby, a magnificent country estate,  appalled by the money driven new classes, with a backbone of duty, obligation and right dealing.  As the film, and book, open he receives a letter from his wife Sylvia, who has been away with a lover for two months, that she has tired of him and would like to come back.  Tietjens, to the consternation of his friends, agrees.  ” A gentleman simply does not divorce his wife, especially if she is the mother of his child,” a certainty we learn he does not have.

Cumberbatch plays the part very well even if, in Ford’s telling Tietjens is a short “lumpish” not very attractive man, qualities which Cumberbatch can not claim.  He conveys the sturdy, non-responsiveness to all insult and innuendo imagined for him.  To oblique and direct insinuation, even by his own brother, about Miss Wannop and the imagined bastard she has had by him,  his reply is as if he has not heard.  So great is his control that we don’t ever see him trying to master it.

Sylvia, as a Roman Catholic, can not divorce him (though she has no such scruples about infidelity) and for all her sexual adventuring, beneath her antagonism she is most desirous of him, as the least boring of her men friends.  Ford, and Stoppard along with him, cross up our sympathies for both: who could live with her?  Who could live with him?  She cannot force him, though she tries untiringly, to give up his code of behavior.  At one point she cries, “If only you had said, ‘You bitch, you whore!’ you might have saved us!”  She has, as Stoppard puts it, a kind of “joyful hatred.”

Rebecca Hall is marvelous in the role, with the extraordinary beauty Ford tells us of, and the outrageous expectation of fealty to be payed. Her manner of cutting acquaintances cold, of rekindling the interest of spurned lovers, of hoping to weaken Tietjen’s resolve by encouraging a tryst with Miss Wannop, are superbly done. Her eyelids drop in disinterest exactly right, her chin lifts in dismissal not a millimeter low or slow. Her self regard in an often lifted compact, the gift of a lover, reflects back to her and us, her viewers.

One particular showcase is her arrival at British General Head Quarters in France, during the war, on the arm of a liaison officer, previously a lover.  Ostensibly there to check on Christopher, who is not much of a letter writer, she has General Campion, upper class friend of her upper class family, struggling to maintain his military air around her. Quite marvelous.

Miss Wannop herself, Valentine, is as “clean” and “strong limbed” as Ford could have hoped.  As a fence jumping suffragette and later in a girls school uniform where she teaches physical education, she is the picture of a naive, idealistic young woman who is, as is Tietjens, moving slowly away from “outmoded codes of behavior” to those new ones growing in the rumble of war.  After a hoped for liaison is interrupted, just before he goes back to the front, he says stiffly, “I suppose we’re not that sort.” She answers “No, we’re not.”  Almost two years later, after he is discharged, their love reveals itself at an impromptu soldiers reunion, as she becomes the hostess, and the mistress of his heart.

Though I suspect, on balance there is a higher proportion of war to home life in the books than in the series, the war, for a small budget TV series, is visually well represented.  Not in prolonged corpse throwing scenes but with dark lighting, sopping trenches, muddied faces, veery lights, and explosions done well enough to suggest the conditions the men are living in. [Stoppard speaks, in an included interview, of visiting the Stephen Spielberg set for War Horses, and feeling like a child with his nose pressed against the candy store window.]  Tietjens is shown wounded once, and has a man, whose leave he has just denied, die in his arms, creating in him the agonized question, ‘what if…?’

As a ‘war movie” then, Parade’s End hardly qualifies,  It is not just the men at the front, or scenes of homecoming, crippled and distraught, but the war as it affected the British people, the upper classes predominantly, and the enormous changes in private and public morality. Sexual innuendo is in the air; divorce, previously rare, is no longer a scandal.  In one fine scene, an officer has returned to France, having been granted ‘divorce leave,’ and is being raked across the coals by his commanding officer for ‘not divorcing her!’  He expostulates to Tietjens, ‘They’re going to share her!’

Though heavily focused on the well-off, there is both in books and film, recognition and representation of different groups of working men, different accents, different skills — Cockney,  Darby, Cornish.  And I was very happy to see a couple of scenes of militant suffragettes out on the streets making life miserable for those who thought women had not enough brains to vote. (Women, married and over the age of 30, first voted in December, 1918, one month after the Armistice.)

What is missing of course in a short series is the sumptuous detail Ford provides in the books, from stream of consciousness at the front, wandering between concern for his frightened men and memories of Miss Wannop, to sometimes excruciating discussions between officers about proper behavior, discipline and respect.  We don’t hear as much in the movie of the erudition of Teitjens or his mates — discussions of Petrarchian sonnets vs Shakespearean, the Rossettis, Cordelia, but the impression of it is strong.  They are not your rugged ass-kicking Americans.

In the novels, events are covered and re-covered, from one time to another, in one person’s eyes or another’s with the result that there is more mystery as the novel unfolds than in the movies. We may understand an early reference only in later repetition.  Like an incoming tide, the novels slowly cover long and wide stretches of time and place, lapping and re-lapping until we are fully immersed.  The TV serial does the same –with a time-lapse camera.  Its all there.  We just don’t see the minute motions.

Stoppard himself had not read the novels until he was asked to do the screen play.  He was somewhat intimidated by the length and the idea of rendering them in 5 hours. (The very fine Audible reading, by Stephen Crossley,  is 38 hours, 18 minutes) By the time he got to page 100, he says, “I was hooked.”

Try the series first and see if you aren’t.  We’re only 6 months into the 100th anniversary of the 51 month war. Plenty of time to take up the novels later.