Saturday, September 22, 2012

Not Enough Parades

Tom Stoppard has been busy of late and the great man, well into his eighth decade at this stage, is not at all opting for an easy life it seems. He condescended the tragic tale of doomed Russian lady Anna Karenina as best he could into a two-hour script and Joe Wright's sumptuous yet pretentious finished product can be seen in cinemas. Beware that Keira Knightley's face makes contortions that faces don't make in real life although I'm not an expert on nineteenth century Russia and things may have been different then. She tries her best. In other Stoppard news, Parade's End last night finished airing on BBC Two in the UK and will soon make its debut on HBO before being rolled out all over the world in the sure and certain hope of attracting Downton Abbey's millions of devotees from Maine to Spain. Downton Abbey it ain't, however. Stoppard has adapted Ford Madox Ford's four often impenetrable Modernist novels Some Do Not......., No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up and Last Post, first published separately and later collectively as Parade's End, which are greatly admired but rarely read.

The five-part miniseries was impeccable in many ways and Stoppard's dialogue was often beautiful to listen to and beautifully delivered but the story felt rushed at crucial moments as the fascinating love triangle between the unhappily married Mr and Mrs Tietjens and young Miss Wannop reached its unpredictable conclusion against the backdrop of a grim exploration of World War One. It was five hours in length which is nowadays considered rather luxurious for a period drama on this lavish scale featuring a vast array of supporting characters and as many scenes in the muddy trenches as at swanky society soirees; in the 1980s it would have been seven hours at the very least,  I reckon, but that's the way we live now and there doesn't seem to be any going back. Parade's End really could have done with more time to unfold because, although often very witty and directed with a wry eye by Susanna White, it was not just an entertaining spectacle in the Downton tradition. It was properly challenging fare, not only because of its unsentimental approach to many of the issues in Britain in the 1910s such as the suffragette movement and the war itself but because every aspect of the story was imbued with shades of grey.

Christopher Tietjens, the self-proclaimed last Tory, is a virtuous and principled man slowly realising that he has become a ridiculous anachronism with half of London society gossiping about his chaste friendship with idealistic Valentine Wannop, not believing for a second that he would remain faithful to his cruel and manipulative wife Sylvia. Meanwhile, Sylvia is not an unsympathetic villain but rather her own worst enemy, lashing out at her passive husband in a vain attempt at provoking him into action but rather alienating him further. And Valentine realises throughout the course of the war and her interactions with her beloved Christopher that life is not at all as simple as she thought it was when she first boldly announced herself into his world. My allegiances changed frequently while watching Parade's End and I was charmed, frustrated and perplexed in equal measure by the troubled trio of Christopher Sylvia and Valentine, played flawlessly by Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall and Adelaide Clemens. All the actors were first-rate, in fact, with a special mention for Anne-Marie Duff (pictured above) as Valentine's friend Edith Duchemin, whose outward kindness and concern for others masked a callous self-interest which slowly revealed itself. Much like Edith, Parade's End was a deceptive piece of work that specialised in defying expectations. What you first saw was frequently not what you were ultimately getting. If only we had been allowed to get a bit more of it. Mustn't grumble.

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