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'Parade's End' Review: 'Sherlock's' Cumberbatch Takes On An Ambitious Costume Drama

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"Parade's End" (premieres Tuesday, February 26 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO) is one bristly, spiky little beast.

Don't make the mistake of thinking this miniseries, which airs Tuesday through Thursday and is set Europe before and during World War 1, is a puree of "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock," though you'd be forgiven for making that mistake. The ambitions of "Parade's End," which stars "Sherlock's" Benedict Cumberbatch, are much loftier than those of the crowd-pleasing British imports, and it rarely lets you forget that.

Like "Downton Abbey," "Parade's End" is a high-end shelter magazine feature come to gorgeous life. The way Rebecca Hall's red hair stands out against the cerulean blue of a wallpaper; the sumptuousness of a red velvet dress; the delicate cut of of a crystal Champagne flute -- all these things please the eye in the ways you'd expect from a high-end period drama. Like the lead character of "Sherlock," however, Benedict Cumberbatch's Christopher Tietjens has no time for simple pleasures -- he's a brilliant government statistician who doesn't suffer fools gladly. But he suffers, of that there is no doubt. I just wasn't sure why he was suffering half the time.

"Parade's End" is all about repression -- glamorous repression, of course, because television networks typically don't want to pay for any other kind. Characters frequently tell Tietjens that he's the last good man in England, due to his adherence to a code of conduct that is all about honor and duty and so forth. The more excessive aspects of that code seem rather quaint and ridiculous to modern viewers, but the drama never successfully does something it needs to do in order to work: It doesn't explain why the more stringent parts of this mysterious code matter so much to Tietjens, who continually denies himself experiences and relationships that could bring him contentment. He keeps spurning both basic and profound needs for reasons that aren't compellingly portrayed.

While Hall (who plays Tietjens' wife, Sylvia) and Cumberbatch do a fine job of portraying two mismatched people who are nevertheless stuck with each other for a bunch of social, cultural and personal reasons -- some of which even they don't understand -- "Parade's End" is often at war with itself. Perhaps that's appropriate for a drama about a troubled couple in wartime, but the drama's smugness and its tonal confusion, intentional or not, is wearying, especially in the first few hours of the miniseries.

About halfway through its run, "Parade's End" begins to unfreeze and take more interest in the trajectories of Christopher and Sylvia, and once the drama has gotten the viewer to care a little about them (something it seems actively unwilling to do much of the time), both actors display their formidable talents in well-crafted scenes of vulnerability and revelation. But much of the time, this project reminded me of "Mildred Pierce," a miniseries HBO aired last year: Both are period pieces with tremendous casts and fine production values, both feature plodding lead characters who make inexplicable decisions, and both have an air of a stubborn opaqueness that makes it hard to stay consistently interested in the narrative, let alone care deeply about where it's going.

Hall and Cumberbatch are the reason to tune in and stick with this drama, if you can, but if you can't, I understand. "Parade's End" can be heavy going, not least because the director appeared to think the audience was generally unable to understand even the most basic symbolism (what could a train going through the countryside mean? Or a woman repeatedly looking at herself in a cracked mirror? I wonder).

The formal structures and the symbolism could well be homages to the Ford Madox Ford novels on which the miniseries is based, but they also serve to make the whole affair colder and less absorbing than it could be. "Parade's End," like many costume dramas, is about a world that is ending, and its disjointed narratives may well reflect the way that war (in the drawing room and the battlefield) fractures rebellious and sensitive minds.

The intention may have been to explore the love and hate that Christopher and Sylvia have for each other -- and for British society as a whole -- but what ends up on the screen is sometimes a strangely muddled soup. Drawing-room comedy, arch satire and blunt exposition don't so much combine as collide, and the cognitive dissonance actually seems cruel in scenes in which characters discussing madness, misery and abortion are undercut by tinkly, "this is funny" music. Much of the story's connective tissue is missing, and Tom Stoppard's dialogue sometimes has a stagy quality that seems stiff and off-putting.

Is it worth soldiering on, as it were, through the trenches of metaphor and symbolism? If you're a serious fan of the Cumberbatch, it probably is, but know that you'll sometimes wonder how various characters who drift in and out of the story are connected to it and why they matter (Rufus Sewell wanders in as a mad vicar, but his talents are wasted and he soon wanders out again). Ultimately, "Parade's End" seems quite concerned with disguising the fact that the drama hinges on commonplace love triangle among a noble man, his rebellious wife and her virginal competition (a wan suffragette played by Adelaide Clemens).

At one point, Sylvia talks about wanting to provoke her husband out of his "glass cabinet," and I know the feeling. At times I wasn't sure if "Parade's End" was actually interested in its characters or if it merely wanted to use them as props in its disjointed exploration of an entire class' tragic devotion to a decayed code and familiar ideas about the connections between hypocrisy and savagery.

Occasionally, the Tietjens emerge from their cabinets, and the leads are mesmerizing when they do. All things considered, though, while it's excellent to see something more ambitions than the deeply conservative "Downton Abbey," the whole thing made me miss the frisky, irreverent humanism of "Sherlock."

"Parade's End" airs from Tuesday, February 26 at 9 p.m. EST to Thursday, February 28 on HBO.

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