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Cumberbatch brilliant in Brit period miniseries

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Feeling down now that Downton's done? Addled by abject sadness after Abbey's sendoff?

Well, fear not -- just when it seems all sense of televised decorum has been lost, HBO Canada has imported a proper Brit period-piece miniseries that's sure to put a spring in your step and some starch back into your tear-softened and still-quivering upper lip.

The five-hour epic Parade's End, -- which premieres Tuesday with a two-hour episode and continues Wednesday with another two hours before wrapping up in Thursday's hour-- offers another well-appointed glimpse at the unravelling of Edwardian English society amid the chaos of the First World War and the inevitable advancements of technology and socio-political unrest.

Based on novels by Ford Madox Ford (which were adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard), this well-measured drama delivers a decidedly darker vision of Britain's upper crust during the early 20th century, but Downton devotees will likely still find it very much to their TV-viewing tastes.

In addition to its time-period similarities to Abbey, Parade's End has another PBS connection -- its starring role is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who has been thrilling U.S. public television fans of late with his rousing modern-day portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

In Parade's End, Cumberbatch is anything but an action-minded hero -- rather, he's aristocratic brooder Christopher Tietjens, a privileged son who might just be, at the same time, the smartest and saddest man in all of England.

He's a 20th-century man clinging to 18th-century values and principles, trapped in a loveless marriage to a scheming wife, Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), whom he felt compelled to wed after their ill-advised dalliance aboard a train was followed by her announcement that she was with child (though later evidence strongly suggests that Tietjens is not the father).

She brings two things to the relationship: an inclination to be serially unfaithful and a personality so toxic and cruel that it's hard to imagine anyone could put up with it. But put up with it he will, with stiff-lipped resolve, because it's the proper thing to do in his antiquated version of British gentlemanly duty.

Professionally, he toils in a government statistics department, where he annoys his co-workers and superiors by always being right. When the series opens, it's 1912 and Tietjens declares that the Germans are spoiling for a war in Europe and predicts they'll start one within two years.

His colleagues jeer. By the end of 1914, British soldiers are neck-deep in the muddy trenches of France.

The only time Tietjens' aristocratic resolve is shaken is when he encounters Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a headstrong young suffragette whose values he fears but whose obvious feminine charms he (almost) cannot resist. There's an instant connection between the two, but the Englishman's sense of propriety prevents them from acting on it.

When war is declared, as he predicted it would be, Tietjens feels compelled to leave his desk job and join the fight. What he encounters on the front lines shakes him to the core and eventually affects all who come in contact with him.

Parade's End is a slow-moving, meticulous kind of drama that some Downton fans might find a bit dense compared to their preferred PBS confection, but those who stick with it will be amply rewarded. Cumberbatch is brilliantly restrained in the lead role; his portrayal of the emotionally trapped Tietjens is so effective that it nearly makes one sympathetic to Sylvia's continual cruel efforts to elicit a reaction -- any reaction -- from her too-perfect husband.

He's a man living in the wrong time. Parade's End is a series whose arrival time is pretty much exactly right. Twitter: @BradOswald


Parade's End

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Adelaide Clemens, Stephen Graham and Miranda Richardson

Tuesday at 10 p.m.

HBO Canada

4 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 G3

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