This post is written by our "Sunday Corner"
Tom Stoppard (prolific playwright, screen-writer) can't have had a simple time distilling Ford Madox Ford's four-novel series because the work unfolds in non-linear fashion, jumping around dizzily. Written close to the period, the novels were called by poet W.H. Auden and others 'great', but they aren't easy -- as though Ford meant his work to be as contrary as he made his characters. The first go at the mini-series is also off-putting. I didn't get into it until the re-watch; then became engrossed in the story of the protagonists and also their being metaphor for the bloom being off the rose of the aristocracy. It did help to know where the story was headed before focusing on how the words and actions of the characters contribute to the synergy of the whole.
Benedict Cumberbatch (at far left) is so quietly, deeply expres-sive that Christopher's suffering is palpable -- his 'romantic feudalism', his nostalgia for a time of 'rights, duties, and supposed orderliness' (Julian Barnes, the Guardian, 8/2012) making him a dinosaur in his own time. (Press here for Barnes's rich analysis of Ford's characters.)
Sylvia (the beautiful, formidable Rebecca Hall, above, right), acts out the narcissism of the aristocracy with the seductive charm of a sociopath. Her mother (Janet McTeer) calls her manipulative behavior 'pulling the strings of the shower bath'. Christopher, an intellectual savant, shoulders the guilt and unhappiness of an aristocracy that is becoming anachronistic. Although brilliant, he nevertheless courts failure through one self-deprecating act after another. He works at the Imperial Department of Statistics and perfectly predicts the outbreak of war. But when asked to manipulate data, he quits, deeply offended, and joins the army. Through the war years, Sylvia's sadistic antics and Christopher's own self-effacement conspire to ruin his reputation. He is banned from his club and sent down to a combat unit at the front.
Adelaide Clemens, below, right), middle-class daughter of a classics professor and journalist mother (Miranda Richardson at her most winsome). Christopher and Valentine meet for the first time on a golf course where she and a friend are demonstrating for the vote among 'fat golfing idiots' (whose own view is that suffragettes are whores and deserve to have their bare bottoms spanked). Christopher chivalrously foils arrest of the girls by heaving his clubs in the way of a police officer who is giving chase. In this and later brief chaste encounters, we see the exact opposite of mutual repulsion. Christopher and Valentine "get" each other, make each other think, and disagree amiably. Their fresh good will is hope for the future, but he is not ready to shed his old-fashioned honor.
Rufus Sewell, a batty cleric; Rupert Everett, Christopher's older brother (above, left), who lives with his mistress and wants no part of Groby; and Anne-Marie Duff (below, left) as whiny Edith, a middle-class snob who has snared Macmaster, (Stephen Graham, below, right), a writer, to enhance her social climb among the literati.
HBO; it's worth the work.
DOWNTON ABBEY is the soap opera version of the cracking Edwardian facade during and after WWI. Created by Julian Fellowes, shown below, Season 5 has ended and season 6 ordered -- could be the place to stop.
Hugh Bonneville), hapless head of the aristocratic Crawley family, broods over the inability of his land-rich, cash-poor estate to support itself. Fortunately his modern daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) is able to walk the line between appreciating papa's decency and prodding him toward running the estate like a business. The growing assertiveness of women in the new century is punctuated by daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) running off with the chauffeur, cousin Rose (Lily James) falling for a black jazz musician followed by snagging a Jewish banker-- at least avoiding an interracial scandal.
Maggie Smith, below), Butler Carson (Jim Carter), and Lord Grantham keep the flame, resisting slippage of the status quo.
Rob James-Collier (below), who is owed lead roles as soon as possible. There is something behind those eyes, and you want more.
Gosford Park, also scripted by Fellowes. But Gosford had director, Robert Altman, who, like great writers, make us care about the inner life and motivations of characters. Taking place during a weekend gathering at a country estate, a murder is committed by a character whose pain we begin to understand and share as the crime is solved. At Gosford Park, as in Parade's End, we are slowly drawn into the inner lives of a number of characters. Parade's End and Gosford Park can be mined over and again; repeat visits to Downton offer thin gruel.
PBS. Only the first four seasons are available on DVD in the NTSC version compatible with our DVD players, but for those who own an all-region player, the UK version of Season 5 is now for sale. (It can't be long before Season 5 is available here, too.)