Benedict Cumberbatch has an extraordinary name, but an even more extraordinary face. The superb new miniseries “Parade’s End” takes place in England before and during World War I, but it also takes place on Cumberbatch’s captivating physiognomy. His features are boyish, guarded, hyper-vigilant, like an innocent 4-year-old meeting his first giant dog. His upper lip is stiff — a perfect attribute for this story about an emotionally stifled Brit — and yet oddly expressive, with an elegant curl that can make the smallest bend signify joy. In a single scene, with only small facial shifts, he can transform from noble, to awkward, to cruel, to broken, and back.
The HBO miniseries confirms what those who’ve seen PBS’s “Sherlock” and “Masterpiece” miniseries such as “To the Ends of the Earth” probably already know: Cumberbatch is a remarkable actor. He can quietly project the inner turmoil that more animated actors can only mimic. In the five-hour “Parade’s End,” Cumberbatch’s brainy aristocrat Christopher Tietjens rarely states what he’s feeling, and yet we always know exactly where he stands. Christopher is wedded to the rigid denial, manners, and virtue that will not survive the Edwardian era. His last name is pronounced TEE-gins, emphasizing decorum (tea) over high spirits (gin).
“Parade’s End,” adapted from the Ford Madox Ford tetralogy by Tom Stoppard, shows how Christopher is cornered into marriage by the promiscuous Sylvia (Rebecca Hall). They meet in a train car and have sex on the spot; later, when she is pregnant, he does the right thing, even though the child may not be his. Their relationship is a collision of mores, as she grows increasingly desperate to shock him out of his old-fashioned decency and prudence. “I’ll make that wooden face wince yet,” she says, employing everything from social embarrassment to infidelity. By the time World War I arrives, he has strayed emotionally, though not physically, with a young suffragette named Valentine (Adelaide Clemens, who looks like Michelle Williams). Still, for Christopher, for whom withstanding punishment is a test of manliness, divorce is out of the question.
As Sylvia, Hall is spectacular. She makes the complex, ever-shifting balance of power between the couple crystal clear. It’s not an easy kind of love to bring to the screen believably, their seesaw of masochism and sadism. Sylvia kicks Christopher around ruthlessly, but you soon understand that she’s falling more and more in love with him precisely because he does not succumb to her provocations. “You forgave without mercy,” she tells him. She could have many men, yet she fixates on the one she cannot corrupt. Hall, with lush reddish hair, is wonderfully watchable throughout, whether Sylvia is bored out of her mind or filled with disdain for men. She and Cumberbatch are a brilliantly mismatched pair, as Christopher scribbles corrections in the encyclopedia while she writhes in contempt.
The miniseries, which airs Tuesday-Thursday nights at 9, has a full ensemble of well-drawn characters surrounding the two stars. Stephen Graham, who plays Al Capone on “Boardwalk Empire,” is a lovable mess of loyalty and need as Christopher’s friend MacMaster. Anne-Marie Duff, so powerful in “The Virgin Queen” and as Fiona in the British “Shameless,” is all desperation as his love interest, trapped in a marriage to a mad reverend (Rufus Sewell). Rupert Everett is nearly unrecognizable as Christopher’s independent-minded brother. As Valentine, Clemens is so palpably sweet that you can feel what Christopher is drawn to, as they debate whether they’re hearing a lark or a nightingale. You can also feel what Sylvia despises about her.
Like “Downton Abbey,” which has navigated some of the same territory, the world of “Parade’s End” is beautifully filmed with period detail. But “Parade’s End” is a more focused and darker story than “Downton,” as it gazes into its characters’ twisted souls and their self-contradictory attitudes. The viewer needs to embrace the inconsistencies of human nature and the way one person can be both heroic and hateful.
And the unfolding of the “Parade’s End” narrative has been directed (by Susanna White) and written to challenge — sometimes too much so. While you always understand the connections among the characters on “Downton,” you have to piece them together yourself in “Parade’s End.” Critical facts in a scene often aren’t revealed until mid-scene; setups are not handed to you. It’s the kind of demanding storytelling that differentiates “The Wire” from most other crime series.
The oddest comparison I made while watching “Parade’s End” was to “Mad Men.” Both are set in shifting times, with sexual permissiveness on the rise and war in the background. You wonder which characters will throw down anchor and which will sail ahead in the winds of change. Will Christopher Tietjens become extinct? It’s worth finding out.