Following its supremely assured opening episode last week Parades End continues to show why it’s the classiest drama on television at the moment. Focusing on the love triangle between Christopher, Sylvia and Valentine this was a wistful, somewhat melancholy but utterly engrossing hour of television as Christopher’s moral code, his sense of “Parade” results in nothing but sheer misery for the trio.
Christopher, having been cuckolded and humiliated by Sylvia in the 1st episode travels to Germany to collect her having determined that they will continue to live as man and wife as only a “blaggard” would subject his wife to a divorce. He meets her, only to have fresh agony heaped upon him when she informs him that his mother has sadly passed away.
Returning to Groby Sylvia positively scandalises Christopher’s disapproving father and brother and the staff with her manner and dress (“first Hobble skirt at Groby they’d only seen them in the picture papers…”) to the quiet delight of her and her maid. Christopher sends his beloved son Michael to live with Sylvia’s sister and he and Sylvia return to London. But all is not well. Christopher refuses to divorce Sylvia but they are living separate lives. Sylvia promises to live chaste and tries hard to be the dutiful wife in the hopes that Christopher will forgive her transgression. But Christopher is quietly pining for the luminous Valentine who is in turn missing the man she met so briefly all that time ago. A desperately lonely Sylvia reverts to very bad habits acquiring another would be lover (Brownlie) while still trying to get Christopher to forgive her. But Christopher, increasingly disenchanted with a job he despises has other plans. He’s realised that it is time for him to fight for the country that he desperately loves and he resigns from his job and volunteers to fight in the war. Leaving behind his anguished wife he heads to one of Macmaster’s literary evenings only to unexpectedly find himself confronted with Valentine. Their meeting is initially awkward, Christopher visibly defeated at the thought that Valentine doesn’t respect him. In a charged encounter he tells her of his love for his country and his hopes for what the world should be. An entranced Valentine asks the question the viewers were asking themselves “why didn’t you just kiss me?” But when she opens her eyes and looks up Christopher is gone…
At this stage I must make a confession. I’m not really a huge fan of romances or costume dramas. My bookshelves are entirely devoid of chick lit. An evening watching One Day or The Vow (the rather fine Channing Tatum aside (don’t judge me!)) is my idea of hell. Downton Abbey, whilst enjoyably sudsy leaves me curiously unmoved. And I was probably the only woman in Britain who didn’t swoon like a maiden aunt on a hot day when a drenched Colin Firth rose majestically from that lake in Pride and Prejudice. So it’s been something of a surprise to me how much I am enjoying the glorious old fashioned romance of Parade’s End. I am completely entranced by the peril’s of poor Christopher’s love life and feel so much sympathy for the central trio – yes even Sylvia. I wanted to take Christopher by the shoulders and shake him until he starts making better decisions. Because this was such a sad episode with Christopher’s refusal to leave Sylvia resulting in Christopher, Sylvia and Valentine leading such terribly unhappy lives.
The acting continues to be simply astonishing. Rebecca Hall is just mesmerising as Sylvia. You should hate Sylvia. Her actions last week were appalling. This is a woman who leaves her husband for her lover and then casually dismisses said lover as a child while lamenting the shocking quality of hotel notepaper while he dissolves into hysterics pulling a gun on her. Flighty and callous doesn’t quite cover it. She’s also overly dramatic “I killed your mother” with flashes of cruelty. And yet, and yet… Sylvia clearly loves Christopher and she tries so so hard to get him back – living chastely at his side and even going to convents on spiritual retreats. You can’t help but wince at her discussion with her friend in the convent. Sylvia seems to crave notoriety and enjoys shocking people and yet when she has the reputation of being the woman you need to protect your husband from she doesn’t want it. She wearily recounts how she can’t win – the woman are afraid of her & then infuriated when they realise she doesn’t want their man anyway.
It would be a hard heart that doesn’t wince in sympathy at the realisation that she is (as her gleeful and frankly god awful friend points out) “perfectly soppy” about Christopher. She loves him but he can barely bring himself to look at her naked form. She’s a very contrary woman – meeting her lover at an auction and yet she takes the time to purchase something perfect for Christopher. Her flash of pain as Christopher initially rejects her present suggesting it be hung in her bedroom is hard to watch. Christopher’s moral code won’t allow him to reject Sylvia and humiliate her as the divorced wife but by keeping her with him and refusing to touch or be with her he has turned her into nothing more than a gilded bird in a cage. No wonder Sylvia wistfully dreams of coming back as a fish eagle – soaring free in the air. By being kind Christopher is completely suffocating her – no wonder she rails against him for being both a “paragon of virtue and the cruellest man I know”.Hall’s finest moment was Sylvia returning on New Years and mistaking the noise of her maid for Christopher. Her hope that Christopher had returned to share the day with her, her pain and embarrassment when she realises it’s simply her maid Evie- I think the BAFTA and Emmy nominations are pretty much in the bag. On a shallow note Hall also looks stunning throughout having been gifted with a wardrobe to die for.
Adelaide Clemens is luminous as the completely smitten Valentine. She stoutly defends Christopher while having to cope with her feisty mother, conscientious objector brother (Freddie Fox) and vindictive gossips such as Lady Claudine who you fear does not mean well. Her conversations with Mrs Duchemin are a delight.She supports her wonderfully in the face of her husband’s insanity – the comedic highlight of the episode. But Valentine is an innocent in the ways of the world. She had elevated the unfortunate Mrs Duchemin in her mind to some sort of thwarted romantic heroine, a woman trapped in a terrible marriage to a mad husband but living chastely and yearning for something more. She saw in her relationship with Macmaster a parallel to Valentine’s with Christopher. Valentine is crushed when she realises the true nature of Mrs Duchemin’s predicament as Duchemin incredulously asks her what she thought she was doing with Macmaster – “comparing their beautiful souls?” A despairing Valentine wails out her anger at the “beastliness everywhere” and her dismay at Mrs Duchemin’s affair with Macmaster “at least there was you, living for love, someone rising clear above the muck for me reaching for beautiful things…”. In her final meeting with Christopher she is terrified of him leaving overseas and tries to show him that he indeed has someone to live for.
Benedict Cumberbatch is again marvellous as Christopher. Poor Chrissie seems to spend this episode in a sort of permanent state of confusion. He seems fond of his wife and good naturedly ignores her outbursts “My mother died of a medical condition not a literary convention” but he won’t touch her. He seems to punish himself – sending his beloved son away and refusing to either try and make a go of things with Sylvia or leave her for Valentine. The only times he lights up in the episode are when he is with his son Michael or at the end talking to Valentine. He despises his job and dislikes the political toadying favoured by Macmaster. But he is so so desperately lonely – spending New Years finishing a puzzle rather than spending it with his wife. He only attempts to comfort her when she is in despair at the end over his leaving for the war only to be rebuffed for being too late. Christopher’s conversation at the end with Valentine is heartbreaking as he is visibly distressed at the thought that she doesn’t respect him. He declares that he is joining the army as he has nothing to live for and only has “this great hulking body to throw into the war” He has a beautiful speech in which he sets out his love for his country and his vision of Toryism only to be dismissed by a smitten Valentine as having the views of “an innocent child”. Their conversation is so charged and so beautiful that I was screaming “just kiss her you idiot!” at the screen.
Apart from the main love triangle Anne Marie Duff continues to give a lovely turn as the despairing Mrs Duchemin and there was fun to be had in spotting familiar faces- Benedict’s father Timothy Carlton showing up in a picnic sequence and long time friend Siobhan Hewlett (who played Benedict’s girlfriend in Fortysomething) appearing briefly (looking stunning!) as a party guest at one of Macmaster’s literary soirees.
Superlative acting aside Parade’s End continues to be beautifully shot (Groby especially looks utterly magical) and the score is just lovely. I adored the final sequence of Sylvia with her lover, Valentine suffering from her brother’s choices and Christopher in uniform off to war all scored by a beautiful piece of operatic music. Quite superb with one tiny gripe (more Rupert Everett please!)- roll on next week…