Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

Parade’s End – Episode 1 – Review


Parade’s End has been billed as the television event of the autumn by those in the know. On paper it certainly boasts an impressive creative team, with acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard returning to television after an absence of over twenty years to pen a personal labour of love, an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s four book series from the 1920s. Benedict Cumberbatch spearheads a remarkable cast, all of whom are finely decked out in period costume. Surely this expensive BBC and HBO co-production is ready made to replicate the mass market appeal of Downton Abbey? In theory yes, but Parade’s End has high brow, literary DNA that makes it an altogether different beast from Julian Fellowes and ITV’s aristocratic love child.

Cumberbatch’s character, Christopher Tietjens, is the heart of this sprawling Edwardian story. He is a government statistician, with a superhuman mind, and today such a figure would be replaced by a computer. According to reports Stoppard wanted Cumberbatch for the part, and no one else, from the very beginning of a long writing process that stretches back into the 1990s. Of course back then, pre-Sherlock, Cumberbatch was a relative nobody in the acting universe. But something about the actor’s ability to suppress emotion and project immense intelligence convinced Stoppard that he was the perfect fit for Tietjens. Yesterday in Edinburgh Sherlock co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss expressed similar sentiments about casting Cumberbatch as the world’s most famous detective; they only ever auditioned him for the part. Something appears to have clicked into place in an increasingly extraordinary acting career. Perhaps Cumberbatch is even more of a genius than the characters he plays.

Comparisons will be made between the characters of Christopher Tietjens and Sherlock Holmes, but they will mostly be misleading. Both possess brilliant minds and revel in acquiring seemingly dull details about anything and everything. Both hide a fragile emotional core from the world. However, arguably Sherlock keeps his emotions under wraps far better than Tietjens. Early reviews of the opening episode all touch on the climate of emotional repression in Edwardian society, and Tietjens’ resulting coldness, but I was surprised by his frequent vulnerability. On numerous occasions he refers to himself as “soft” and can scarcely disguise the pain in his face. He also loses his temper in public, with individuals and the establishment gossip they mindlessly pander to. Having said that he is a fiercely traditional and principled man, who lives his life by a set of values that seem increasingly out of date, both politically and socially. Contrast this with Sherlock who, in Conan Doyle’s books and particularly the new series, despises the flaws of the status quo.

Sherlock’s success is hard to match, but Cumberbatch could give the performance of his career in Parade’s End. The sheer depth of the material provides wonderful opportunities for all the actors involved. As author Julian Barnes writes in The Guardian, “the emotional level of the novel is high”. I have not read Ford’s book but its multi-layered power to absorb is clear from the obvious fascination that comes through in articles written by Barnes and others. Episode 1 of the adaptation also demonstrates the complexity and quality of the characterisation on show.

Tietjens is married to Sylvia, who is deliciously played by Rebecca Hall. In the opening scenes of Friday night’s series opener we flit between their first meeting (and subsequent romp) on a train and later, unhappier times, with Sylvia practically blackmailing Tietjens into marriage and then gallivanting around Europe with a lover, just to taunt him. In Sylvia, Hall is playing a character pleasingly out of her comfort zone, who oozes sex and seems to desire destruction out of nothing more than restlessness. In his Guardian piece Barnes describes Sylvia as the “most possessed evil character in 20th century fiction”. And yet there is something likeable about her. Despite her malice, or indeed because of it, she is tremendous fun to watch and she confesses that beneath her antics lies a frustrating affection for Tietjens, who has made all other men seem infantile and foolish to her.

For his part, Tietjens refuses to abandon the conventions of marriage and gentlemanly conduct. So he simply takes the sadistic betrayal Sylvia continually rubs in his face. He hardens himself to her games and is forced to take her back when she telegrams from Europe, fed up with her latest lover. When his friend and colleague, Macmaster (played by a refined version of Stephen Graham, of Pirates of the Caribbean and This is England fame) quotes love poetry at him, Tietjens harshly describes such talk as “congealed bacon fat”.

The psychology of this odd and manipulating marriage may be fascinating, but the episode really takes flight when Tietjens discovers there is hope for him to enjoy a real loving relationship. On a golfing trip with government figures two suffragettes raid the green, ambushing an MP and fleeing dramatically. The next day Tietjens realises he knows one of the charismatic pair, Valentine (played by Adelaide Clemens), as he breakfasts at the home of an amusingly mad vicar. She is clever and fiercely principled like him, and during a coach ride through the fog which ends in a symbolic collision between modernity and tradition, the two form an affectionate bond.

Suddenly Tietjens’ torment reaches a new level, with the knowledge of what he is missing. The episode ends with Cumberbatch sobbing into a horse in an empty field. The trajectory of a series that will encompass the First World War, the struggle for women’s rights and the personal lives of the characters is set, but where this rich parade will end is far from clear. I for one cannot wait to find out.

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The Other Boleyn Girl


Basically: bouncing boobs, breached bodices, bonking, beauty, blondes, brunettes, betrayal, backstabbing, blood bonds, bastard babies, beheading, Bana, Boleyn. Bogstandard historical “fact”/fiction that skips superficially over and through major historical events rapidly, particuarly towards the end, in favour of a focus on lust and madness. The supporting cast appear predominantly British, such as the colourfully named Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch, but Hollywood starlets from overseas are favoured for the key roles, with an Australian playing the English King and prim performances from Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanasson as the sisters. In many ways a two-dimensional affront to historical storytelling, this film is however ultimately watchable due to most of it resembling a Tudor version of those sexy M and S ads, such is the brilliant beauty of the period detail and exquisite human forms of the cast.  This isn’t just a Royal sex scandal, it’s Scarlett Johansson moaning with ecstascy as Bana’s buff Henry the Eighth towers over her, expressing his divine power as monarch in glorious slow-mo. This isn’t just sisterly rivalry, but a catfight between Portman’s manipulative, manicured and manufactured British tones and Johansson’s saintly gasps of disbelief, with the prizes of religion, state, power and wealth at stake. Meet the original, surprisingly well-to-do, respectful and ambitious footballer’s wives.

A Single Man/Sherlock


I’ve seen A Single Man twice and I am pleased to say it lost none of its impact upon a second viewing. The first time I watched it I was shocked at how I connected with it emotionally. It was the sort of heart squeezing link I only usually make with a piece of music or a poem; it was less a film than a piece of art saying something, expressing something, profoundly true about existence.

Of course for many critics the idea that this film was a glorious piece of visual art, a stimulating feast for the eyes, was simultaneously a strength to be applauded and a glaring weakness deflating all worth from the project. I had previously only come across the director and co-writer Tom Ford as the man who designed Daniel Craig’s suits for the Bond reboot Casino Royale. Whilst the tux was suitably suave my lack of expertise in the area meant I withheld judgement on Ford as an artist and a filmmaker until after the film. Those who knew better than me talked knowingly of Ford’s accomplished designing abilities and the inevitable shiny gloss of beautiful high fashion that would be evident in every frame of A Single Man. However critics also questioned the designer turned director’s ability to make his first film something more than a 90 minute perfume ad.

There are moments that feel a little too polished. In particular a flashback sequence in black and white that pictures Colin Firth and his dead lover sunbathing on an impossibly rocky, empty hillside. The Guardian critic picked out this scene as one that felt too crisp, too artificial and more at home in the fashion world than the realm of gay, grieving George’s story. I was inclined to agree but perhaps I was being too harsh. Having seen the whole film twice and loved it both times I am certainly more than happy to overlook an artificial feel to what was after all a dream sequence.

Besides those critics too focused upon the abundance of style in A Single Man may be missing the whole point of the story. Colin Firth’s bereaved, suicidal character comes to see that life is greatly lacking substance; style wins the day. Be it the style he hides behind for his neighbours, colleagues or students, George the lecturer deals mostly in the triumph of style over substance. His substance used to be Jim, his long term lover, but this was taken from him. The film charts a single day in this single man’s life, showing us mostly the tedious motions of his stylish act, with occasional glimpses of substance through the excellent, restrained performance of Colin Firth. That essence of suppressed British emotion so often seen in trashy romantic comedies finally finds its perfect place here in a gay man pondering the meaning of life. The film climaxes with a kind of answer to this question, as through an encounter with a student who reminds him of youth, George comes to treasure the handful of meaningful moments, when all seems clear, that really do make the veneer of stylish everyday nonsense worthwhile.  

So first time director Tom Ford must be praised for pulling off such a story. He should not listen to those who criticise the stylishness of his film as it simply irresistibly oozes the essence of an era I absolutely love and as discussed above, the sheer beauty of every frame adds to the meaning of the piece. He also co-wrote the script which seems to be a sensitive adaptation of Isherwood’s original work and is just the right length; this is a man capable of fine tuning the components of storytelling not just the image in front of a camera. Colin Firth’s performance, along with those supporting him, is also completely believable and compelling. Most films with a voiceover inevitably disappoint but this one pulls it off, largely due to Firth. A Single Man is certainly not a gripping, edge of your seat film experience but it is a compelling story beautiful enough to hang on your wall. If you could do so you would, for every time you see it you will ponder the nature of the human condition profoundly and re-examine your life.

To Sherlock then, a new version of the classic Holmes and Watson partnership, that updates the sleuthing to a modern day London setting. This time-leap transformation has not really been explored by filmmakers, perhaps out of respect for the characters’ grounding in Victoriana, or perhaps because it couldn’t be done well.

But if anyone can do it surely Steven Moffat, head writer of Doctor Who previously discussed on this blog, could! In partnership with fellow Whovian script writer Mark Gattis, Moffat has set out to introduce Holmes and Watson to a new generation via a new crime fighting era. The idea for the series came about during journeys to Doctor Who’s Cardiff HQ. In the title role Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor I have long thought would make an excellent Doctor at some point, plays the brilliant, socially inept mastermind of detection. The music for the series is composed by David Arnold of Bond film fame. All these things meant I couldn’t not like this programme!

I did of course love the first episode, A Study in Pink, perhaps all the more for being able to note Moffat’s little tweaks from Conan Doyle’s original story that united Holmes and Watson for the first time, A Study in Scarlet. However as with A Single Man the style was sometimes more impressive than the substance. A Guardian review has already noted that the plot was thin for this first episode, despite some wonderful Moffat-esque twists such as Mycroft appearing to be Moriarty and most importantly of all the spot on characterisation. Martin Freeman’s Watson is just the right balance between war veteran and ordinary man, avoiding the bumbling screen Watsons of past adaptations. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is marvellously distant, methodical and brilliant. The Sherlock influences on Dr Who were apparent whilst watching this and vice versa. I do hope Benedict gets a shot at being a Timelord. For now though I shall enjoy his interpretation of another one of my favourite characters and hope that this promising opener was but a taster of better things to come.