It's almost impossible not to compare HBO's sweeping melodramatic wartime drama 'Parade's End' to the insanely popular 'Downton Abbey.' Both of them take place around the same time period, and both are fiercely observant of how the upper class finds reasons to hate life in spite of their fortunes and prestige. That's where the similarities dry up though. Where 'Downton Abbey' is a revolving à la carte of relatable and likable characters, 'Parade's End' is a precession of depressed, lonely characters. It's an introspective somber affair that may leave 'Downton' fans cold and indifferent.
Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the reason for all the gloom. He's a high-ranking government official still trying to hold onto the relics of a bygone era. The politics in Britain are shifting swiftly and Tietjens finds himself clinging to outdated social mores. He's a genius when it comes to numbers – he corrects encyclopedias in the margins for fun – which is why he's working in a government division in charge of statistics. Only the government isn't concerned in the right numbers, they simply want stats that back up whatever position they're behind. Tietjens is highly annoyed by all this.
That's not what's made him so melancholy though. Along with being unhappy in his profession, Tietjens finds himself in a loveless marriage with a conniving, manipulative wife who apparently lives only to make poor Tietjens suffer. Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), is a uncaring socialite who parties too much and cares too little. She grows increasingly weary of Tietjens straight-laced attitude. She finds that trying to get a rise out of her husband is about the only purpose she has left in life. Watching consummate nice girl Rebecca Hall take on such a loathsome character was somewhat disconcerting. Watching Sylvia suck the life and soul out of her husband was astonishingly brutal, knowing that it was Rebecca Hall made it borderline unbelievable.
'Parade's End' doesn't have that instant likability that 'Downton' possesses. If you're not interested in one storyline all you have to do is wait five minutes and 'Downton' has moved onto something else. That isn't the case here. Based on Ford Max Ford's original story, 'Parade's End' covers ten tumultuous years (1914 – 1924). The sorrowful life of the stoic Tietjens is played out against a backdrop of war and social unrest.
It's the intense drama that may turn people off. Dry eyes are hard to come by here. More often than not, tears are rolling down cheeks and hushed conversations of great import are taking place. It's all serious all the time. Correction, not all the time. However, when the show tries to throw in humor here and there it feels distractingly disjointed juxtaposed with the utter seriousness of everything else.
A love triangle soon forms as Tietjens finds a younger woman. A woman who understands him and wants to be with him. Valentine Wallop (Adalaide Clemens) is as cute as a button and Tietjens is instantly attracted to her. Although, being the principled man that he is, he resists. Even though his wife has had affairs that he knows of, he still won't do the same to her.
While I didn't outright dislike 'Parade's End,' I will admit that it requires a certain viewer in a certain mood. It's definitely well-shot and expertly produced. Cumberbatch is as good as he's ever been. It's just that the overt dramatics have a tendency to be lamentably underwhelming.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This HBO release comes in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. There are five episodes in the mini-series each one around an hour long. There are two 50GB Blu-ray Discs included. The first disc has episodes 1 – 3, while the second disc holds 4, 5, and the special features. An UltraViolet Digital Copy is also included. This release is coded for Region A use.
As is usually the case with HBO, 'Parade's End' looks nearly spotless in high definition. The 1080p presentation of the period drama showcases the detailed production value as best as one would expect. Lighting, fine detail, shadow delineation, and color clarity are all tops.
You'll probably notice the concise detailing first. From intricate facial features to tangible looking fabrics, everything here has an extremely lifelike look. From lace dinner dresses to tweed overcoats, the textures here are brilliantly visible. Tears, of which there are many, are expertly defined as they roll down reddened cheeks. Pores, facial hair, and skin texture appear perfectly rendered. Skin tones are naturally realistic.
The color palette runs the gamut from opulent red and rich gold to the drabness of war – grays, browns, and mud (which is a color in any World War-centric drama). Black areas are deep. Crushing never really takes hold. There are some minor instances here and there, but spread across five episodes they're so minimal that they're hardly worth mentioning. Landscape shots, like the numerous shots of the train rolling across the countryside, feature so much exquisite detail that it's hard to remember that you're not watching a BBC documentary about the beauty of the English countryside. It's pretty difficult to find any part of this video presentation that could've been done better.
The audio presentation, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, is almost as impressive. Even with the dialogue-centered storytelling 'Parade's End' still finds ways to use surround sound to its advantage. There's much more to demo audio than being loud and listening to this mix will help many understand why. It's the nuances that make it so effective. The way it treats low dramatic whispers and the way it handles booming explosions. Every sound has its place and it all adds up to a very pleasing soundtrack.
Dialogue is always clear. Even with some of the thicker accents all the dialogue is intelligible. Directionality is seamlessly constructed. Busy London streets give way to sparsely traveled country roads, yet they all feature their own version of wonderfully produced sound. London's hustle and bustle bleeds through into the rear channels. Out in the country, chirping birds and gusts of winds take over in the rear. During the wartime scenes the incoming sound of mortar shells travels impeccably from one channel to the other until the sub-woofer picks up the bass for the impending explosion. LFE is alive and well. It isn't too loud, but some of those battle scenes pack quite a wallop.
I was very impressed with the way 'Parade's End' handles itself in the audio department. Going into a talk-heavy drama you wouldn't expect such auditory variety. Yet, that's what you get here.
It may be too dramatic for 'Downton' fans that like their drama light and fluffy. Cumberbatch is good enough to demand attention. As a matter of fact the entire cast is pretty stellar. It's just that it's so grave, so solemn, that it's hard to justify spending five hours watching these characters wallow in self-loathing. That said, at least you know you're getting a great audio and video presentation, as is par for the course with HBO. Because of that I'm giving 'Parade's End' a light recommendation.