As the sun streams into an upper-class English drawing room, Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) — flame-haired, corseted, regal — stands up from her morning tea and hurls a plate at her husband, Christopher (Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch). She misses. He doesn't even flinch.
Meet Mr. and Mrs. Tietjens. The deliciously snobby (and terribly unfaithful) socialite and her unfailingly decent husband are two sides of the love triangle in Parade's End, HBO's five-part miniseries about longing and lies in World War I-era Britain. The third is angelic Valentine (Adelaide Clemens), an idealistic suffragette and Christopher's soul mate. She's everything Sylvia's not: sensitive, faithful — and a virgin. "Valentine is this kernel of truth and innocence," Cumberbatch says. "She's incredibly sharp and on Christopher's wavelength morally, so it's easy to see why they are so in love. It's a very frustrated 10-year romance."
Good-looking English gentry trading smoldering glances, throwing fits and consuming gallons of tea — does this sound like that other show about repressed nobility who live in very big houses?
"It's not Downton Abbey. It's not pretending to be," says director Susanna White (Generation Kill). "Parade's End makes demands on you as a viewer. You have to concentrate and pay attention or you're going to miss things. It's challenging TV."
And no wonder. Sir Tom Stoppard, whom many consider the world's greatest living playwright, adapted it from a book series by early 20th-century novelist Ford Madox Ford. With highbrow roots like these, this tale goes beyond, as Sylvia delicately puts it, "the he and she."
"It's the story of a man caught between two women, but it's also the story of a society changing," Stoppard says. "The war caused a big watershed change in English society, the end of a couple of centuries of social structure and attitudes."
For Christopher, leaving his miserable marriage is hard to fathom. Valentine represents the chance for renewal. "He sees what's happening around him and realizes that, if you live by an outmoded code of honor, people take you to be a fool," says Stoppard. "And he says, 'I'm coming around to their opinion.' I think that's one of the key statements in Parade's End."
Cumberbatch's aristocratic demeanor and refined speech (check out the YouTube video of him reading Keats aloud) made him ideal for the role. "He was so, so good for us," Stoppard says. "He fit the social milieu."
He almost wasn't cast. Cumberbatch's career was gathering steam with standout performances in War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and his lead role on the BBC's Sherlock. (The streak continues: He will costar in Star Trek Into Darkness and is currently in Iceland playing Julian Assange in the WikiLeaks drama The Fifth Estate.) "I visited the location of War Horse and I was rather sad about meeting Benedict dressed up as a British Army officer in WWI," Stoppard says. "It was like meeting the character in Parade's End, except we couldn't have him."
Stoppard finally landed his star when shifting production schedules made Cumberbatch available. For Hall, it was the consummation of a real-life longing. "Benedict and I had been friends for over 10 years," she says. "We'd always wanted to work together. Because of our history, we had an immediate shorthand and it was easy to create this very angular, push-pull, complex relationship."
The remaining cast boasts a who's who of great British actors, including Rupert Everett as Christopher's brother, Golden Globe winner Miranda Richardson as Valentine's mom and Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire's Al Capone) as Tietjens' social-climbing best friend.
The production felt special right from the start, says Stoppard, who rarely visits a film's set after he's written the script but showed up for about half of the 80-odd shooting days. "Parade's End got under my skin," he says. "I felt very proprietorial about it." He would awake at 5am in London and then take the train to Belgium so he could spend the day on set.
The war scenes shot near Flanders Fields had a strong impact on Cumberbatch. "It was very powerful to be there," he says. "When you go into the trench, it's like you're stepping into the same dirt as your grave."
When the fighting ends, England is changed forever — and so is Christopher. "His whole reason for being is chivalry, doing the right thing, staying with a woman no matter how many times she runs away with another man," Hall says. "It takes a war to change his mind-set."
Parade's End airs Tuesday through Thursday at 9/8c on HBO.