Sunday, August 25, 2013

Parade's End (BBC/HBO series), a Review

I am so very tardy to this party. Thank you, DVR recording technology!

So this adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford's tetralogy of novels hit our shores last winter, after having been aired in the UK last year. It seemed to be served up as a sort of methadone treatment to the Downton Abbey heroin withdrawal--a desperate need for large hats and Edwardian social hierarchy.
You know--luxe lives of leisure that we can both yearn for and disapprove of. 

But is it Downton 2.0? Well, the look is certainly there.

That is our introduction to the mad, bad, and dangerous to know Sylvia Satterthwaite (Rebecca Hall), speaking French into a hotel telephone, telling the concierge not to allow the caller up, as it is "trop tard." She hangs up and lapses into bitterness. "Too bloody late."

And then a man bursts through her door anyway, furious that she has tried to avoid him, even though it is apparent that he isn't going to divorce his wife for her, that's no reason for her not to sleep with him. Is she already pregnant? Des she have anything else to lose? Is there any way she can avoid him, as he hungrily tears at her clothes and throws her to the floor?

The feminist inside me pities her deeply. She has no power to make him stop, other than the force of her own honed social skills--and those are clearly not enough. This is "lie back and think of England."

Soon thereafter, she seduces Christopher Tiejiens on a train. Well, of course, he is Benedict Cumberbatch--wouldn't you?

Well, if he spoke to you, you would. He's her insurance. There is no way (pre-paternity testing and DNA analysis) if the pregnancy is his fault, and he's absolutely decent to the marrow in his bones, so they "marry quietly abroad"--a term that means "she's pregnant, get married before she starts showing." But Tietjiens isn't entirely resigned. "She's bitched me," he says, "but it was glorious."

Thus launches the battle of wills in this toxic marriage. One calculated (by her) and entirely uncharacteristic (for him) tryst in a railway carriage, and then--nothing. He is brilliant and nearly a parody of a withdrawn and taciturn Englishman. Possibly due to being from Yorkshire, even, the younger son of the great Groby House, famous for a two centuries old  spruce tree that the families and locals revere in a sort of pagan ritual of hanging charms and mementos for good fortune. Proposals and marriages have happened under Groby Tree "longer than memory." Sylvia hates it.

Sylvia hates Tietjiens as well. He sits (as in the photo above) at the breakfast table and marks errors in the margins of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He is so silent, so withholding, that the fiery and passionate Sylvia is reduced to crashing against him in a desperate attempt to elicit any kind of response at all. At breakfast, she throws a plate against the wall, startling him in to at least looking at her before he leaves for the office.

This is the complicated heart of this five part miniseries. Christopher Tietjiens is the Old Guard, the "last Tory," a man who holds so tenaciously to the antique standards of behavior that he is literally incomprehensible to those around him--especially his wife. She is also brilliant, and the scope of life offered to her in Edwardian upper society is so limited, so unfulfilling, that her brain has basically turned on itself and begun to consume her. So she bolts, and runs off to the Continent with the terminally pretty but otherwise unsatisfactory Potty Perbowne. 

Stoic and proper as he is, Tietjiens simply gives up the large house and takes rooms with his old friend Vinnie McMaster--the son of a Scottish tradesman who Tietjiens helped financially through university, and now repays the debt by standing by his friend. Four months later, Sylvia is hopelessly bored with Potty, and offers to come home. He accepts her--he will not divorce her, since no gentleman would do such a thing to a woman, and not to the mother of his (putative) child. She will not divorce him, due to her Catholicism. They are locked in a battle that he will not fight.

There are only a few possible outcomes to such a battle. One or the other of them could die; natural causes, murder, accident, war. Tietjiens could fall in love--with his wife, or with someone else. Enter Valentine Wannop.

They "meet cute" as she and a fellow suffragette attack the government minister playing in a golf foursome with Tietjiens and McMaster. She is the child of Tietjien's father's friend, and he creates a diversion so they are not apprehended, then later drives all night with her to get her fellow out of the area. They drive through a deep fog, and as the sun is about to rise, come close enough to kiss. 

He does not. Of course.

Then their horse cart is hit by a motor car. Pastoral idyll ruined by modernity? Anybody see that? Bueller?

Somebody is not happy with this turn of events.

So there's our love triangle, each corner representing a different ideal--Tietjiens the outmoded beliefs and behaviors of the 18th century country gentleman*, Sylvia the urban sophistication (read "decadence?") and the hunger for change at the beginning of the 20th century, Valentine--the pure and virginal pacifist and suffragette.

*I am not so sure that Tietjiens accurately represents the 18th century--have you read Moll Flanders? There was certainly plenty of debauchery and immoral behavior around then too. 
Of course, there is war--The Great War, in fact, and Tietjiens enlists and goes to France. And here is where the novel destroys its hero. Over and over, rumors are started and spread and Tietjiens refuses to address them. Some come from his furious wife, some from the men who are trying to win her--either by doing what they imagine she wants, so by ruining the marriage so she is free again.

But this is bound to fail--because Tietjien's very unassailability makes him more intriguing to her than these petty men. The more they try to bring him down, the smaller they look to her. Also because she is determined to be the one to make "that wooden face flinch."

Meanwhile, Tietjiens and Valentine remain in love, and subject to rumors about their continued sexual relationship (there isn't one and never was) even after they haven't even seen each other for years. Literally. YEARS. All of the disapprobation with none of the benefits. Yup. That's English for you.

Honestly--how stupid are you?

 There is a quite impressive list of negative rumors collected by Tietjien's father and brother, who are trying to figure out why he isn't progressing--he's got the connections, the education, and he's brilliant. But the persistent smear campaign has left notes in his file that he isn't to be trusted with confidential information, he's got a bastard child with Valentine, he has bounced important checks to his club and his officer's mess (thanks to the machinations of Sylvia's would-be lover). In each instance, he refuses to defend himself on the grounds that a true gentleman wouldn't have let things get so out of hand that these rumors and incidents could have even have started.

Fortunately, there is always money for frocks!

 There are large portions of the series devoted to the horrors of trench warfare and the eternal idiocy of military procedure. Generally, WWI horrors have been superceded by the horrors of WWII, but they had their own gravitas, and it is worth being reminded of them. Some of the military foolishness is right out of the Catch 22/M*A*S*H playbook, but was written forty years earlier. In one sequence, Tietjiens (who is invaluable at his various postings because he is the only officer able to make things happen, including getting men equipped and ready to fight) reports on his efforts to get fire extinguishers. Because he is an Imperial Officer managing Canadian troops, he is unable to get provisions from usual military supply, and is instructed to apply to a procurement office, which is unable to provide them due to some other military rule, and directs him to obtain them directly from civilian providers, who are under orders to sell only to the War Office. And of course, a general shows up and dings Tietjien's command because he has no fire extinguishers. And the general doesn't care WHY.

Things escalate, of course, when military regulations collide with social and moral imperatives--at the level Tietjiens's is operating, there are long memories and historical grudges and truly no way to obey all the orders being given. Things come to a head when Sylvia transports herself to France to see her husband. Tietjiens has already made things hard for himself by countermanding the discipline meted out by the military police who detained a Canadian soldier until after curfew and then arrested him. "General O'Hara loves his police like his own little lambs" warns Tietjien's sergeant--himself someone whose career has yet to recover from an incident 20 years in the past.

At night, in the hotel that houses officers for the post, Tietjiens and Sylvia reach a point where they just might--just might--find a way to understand each other, and Tietjiens is goaded into asserting his marital rights. And of course, that's when Potty Perowne tries to sneak into Sylvia's room for their arranged assignation. Tietjiens is furious, and pushes Perowne out the door, just as O'Hara hears the commotion and sees it as an assault on a senior officer. He shouts that Tietjiens is under arrest, while Tietjiens is trying to evict a man from his wife's bedroom. There is no way to reconcile the social rules with military discipline, and Tietjiens ends up at the front.

Again and again, Parade's End tries to break its protagonist, provoke him into rage, to elicit something other than dumb acceptance of the wicked unfairness of his burden, and again and again he simply bears it. No wonder he infuriates Sylvia so. "You forgive with no mercy," she says. "You are the cruelest man I know." I guess a saint is hard to live with. T.H. White said something similar in The Once and Future King when describing Sir Galahad--saints are not comfortable with small talk.

This is quite a sprawling work, covering a decade (1908-1918) and war, women's suffrage, sexual politics, romantic triangles, honor, duty, military incompetence, the end of the old England and the rise of the New World. . .so basically, it's about everything. And that everything-ness makes it hard to love this series. Tietjiens is so very stoic that he's hard to understand. Cumberbatch shows us that Tietjiens certainly feels things deeply, but why does he steadfastly refuse to act? Where does he get this stubborn refusal to engage with the world as it is--he certainly understands what is happening, and he's smart enough to do something else. He chooses not to.

Today, we would probably label him as on the autism spectrum, perhaps, and we would throw around the term "Aspberger's." There does seem something ridiculous about a man who could do something about the amount of suffering dumped on his head who chooses to do nothing about it. Sure, sometimes he choses to take the hit in order to prevent someone else suffering--but even when he is the only one involved, he just doesn't even step out of the way of the incoming damage.

It makes him seem like an allegory rather than a character--Tietjiens IS "England," clinging to the better, finer values of the past, even as the world goes to hell around him. Sure, maybe that's what's going on, but to what end? Tietjiens fails. He ends up in an empty flat (Sylvia has deliberately taken all the furniture), estranged from his son (whom he loves, regardless of whether he is the "real" father or not), socially far beneath his old friend McMaster who has been knighted even as Tietjiens has been destroyed, reduced to greeting a mixed lot of damaged and undesirable soldiers as the only comrades he has left. And Valentine.

Valentine agrees to be his mistress, because she loves him. Quite a feat, as he has exchanged only a few words with her over the past decade. Really, poor Valentine is herself rather an idea rather than a character. She remains innocent, pure, never looking at another man despite reaching more than marriageable age herself. She even dresses only in white--she simply never changes over the course of the series.

Which leaves Sylvia. Who is really quite an amazing character. As played by Rebecca Hall, she is not the bitch queen that some reviews have cast her as. Nor do the reviews I have read really grapple with the sexual issues that dominate the story only slightly less than the war does. Because as presented, sexuality is a sort of war, with the men effectively overrunning the women. As Sylvia puts it, it took her years to get over being angry with Gerald Drake, who refused to divorce his wife and left her with a baby to deal with. Now, in 1918, they have re-encountered each other and gone to bed. The scene unfolds in the aftermath, as Sylvia concludes her ablations--involving red rubber tubing at the bathtub. "Will you come back to bed?" mumbles Gerald. "Certainly no! I can't go through all that again" she announces coldly. And you know--you know--that she means more than just the douching. All of it--the sex itself, the complicated relationships with men, her marriage, the last ten years--and the douching. It's just not really worth it anymore.

Even from the first scene--Sylvia can't even keep a man out of her hotel room, she can't stop him from tearing her clothing and forcing himself on her. She can't summon anyone to remove him, she can't physically overpower him, all she can do is hope for the best. And she does land on her feet, despite having no power, no authority, and no point other than to be decorative. Which is FAR from being enough for her.

Really, for me, Sylvia is the reason for the show--the heart of the story. She has too much talent, too many brains, too much passion for the circumscribed life she has been assigned. So she tries to enlarge the world she moves in, and there are casualties to that effort. Notably, her husband. But she cannot sit still, she cannot life such a small life, and so her choices are to die by inches, or to rail against the restrictions. So she fights for herself and her needs. But English life has so successfully limited her choices that she literally cannot find anything to do with herself other than stir the pot with her husband and other men. It is really a tragedy how her life is wasted, and she is so brave to such little progress. She knows the past has to be torn down in order for the future to arrive, for her to have any hope of happiness and purpose. So she is Shiva, a force for destruction, but she is also a woman who lives a life of such painful pointlessness that she is truly unable to do anything else.

In the end, she manages to install herself at Groby, on behalf of her son--the eventual heir. While there, and before Tietjiens comes back from war, she orders the felling of the Groby Tree.

Of course, Groby Tree is an allegorical character--it stands for the antique past, the organic history of Yorkshire, the refusal of modernity. Several times throughout the series, it is pointed out that the tree threatens the structural safety of Groby House, and Tietjiens swears that he will rebuild the house by hand before he will sacrifice the tree.

Sylvia hates the tree--she hates how the branches cover the windows and make the house dark and gloomy. She hates the paganistic role it plays, where locals hang charms to ward off witches and wights. (This is about the only time she says anything that might be evidence of her religious belief--other than her refusal to divorce. And the refusal to divorce might just be an excuse as she tries to win the only man who has resisted her. She's complicated, and that's what makes her interesting.) She hates the way the past is overshadowing the lives being lived in the present, and she wants that tree gone before her child has to confront that long shadow of the past.

This is what finally breaks Tietjiens--I think. He walks out of Groby House, and takes two chunks of the tree with him back to London. He gives one to his brother, who has no use for it and burns it immediately. Tietjiens himself burns his log, at the gathering of the wounded soldiers in his empty rooms. The past is gone. Tietjiens has divorced himself from his wife, and takes Valentine as his mistress. Sylvia seems to have given up the fight for him as well. There is nothing left, Tietjiens apparently can be stripped no farther, so now he is turning toward joy over duty.

Did I like it? Yeeees. I liked it enough to watch the whole series in a couple of days. I enjoyed it more than the other prestige series I've tried this summer--House of Cards (the Kevin Spacey version) and Orange is the New Black, neither of which I have watched 5 hours of. Is it good? Also a qualified "yes." The acting is marvelous, and the settings and costumes and the look of it is sumptuous and wonderful. I am a bit troubled by the way that 10 years of story hasn't really changed anybody--either in their looks or style or relationships or character. (I may need to make an exception for Anne-Marie Duff's arc from the pitiable Mrs. Duchaime to the cold and unlikeable Lady McMaster.) But. But. What is the point, really?

And you know there has to be a point, because the screenplay was written by (Sir?) Tom Stoppard, who condensed four novels and some 600 pages of text into a particular 5 hours of story. So what was the aim? Was it to tell a particular story, or to try to give the feeling of the sprawling original? Perhaps that was it, after all--to do justice to a complicated and enormous story that has no easy answers.

I can accept that, in part because it lets me choose what I want to foreground as the most meaningful part of the story. And of course I am going to pick the utterly gorgeous and passionate Sylvia, the horrors of her own wars against gender limitations, the pathetic waste of her talent in an upper class woman's life, and her fierce belief that she deserved something that she wasn't being allowed. She is amazing and definitely worth watching.

On the whole--worth watching. It's not a decadent and gooey trifle like Downton Abbey--it's more tart and difficult to digest. But it has a lot of fodder for thought, and much to feast the eyes.

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