There could hardly be a better moment to watch this Tom Stoppard adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s novel than now when it can function as corrective, a sort of anti-DOWNTON ABBEY (Season One). Once more the wealth & social hypocrisy of England’s Upper-Crust collide with the grim reality of WWI. But here, beautiful manners & manors, groveling minions & glamour aren’t cosseted by the benign charm of the rich & tasteful, but usurped by disagreeable prejudice & frankly despicable behavior hiding under the guise of brutal honesty. It’s a chilly society full of mutually agreed upon misunderstandings used to prop up personal & professional opportunities in love & war. The multiple storylines pivot on a series of comically bad interlocked relationships; none worse than the marriage between stoically proper, honest-to-a-fault Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his loathsome, if fascinating wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall). She tries to provoke him into any sort of reaction; he falls hard for a mousy suffragette (Adelaide Clemens). She ignores the war; he finds it a release. Without making it easy for us (in fact, he’s merciless), Stoppard builds up tremendous interest in all of them. Awful as Sylvia is, Tietjens does plenty of damage to himself thru sheer bloody-minded passivity. And you can’t take your eyes off the whole mess; made even messier since all three leads are seriously miscast. Hall misses the John Singer Sargent beauty that might account for her bitchy allure (think Vivien Leigh/Scarlett O’Hara); Clemens comes off as too intellectually dim; and Cumberbatch pulls more faces than the young Charles Laughton.* What was he thinking? Perhaps he felt physically wrong as a character always being called ‘oaf’ or ‘ox’ or even ‘fat.’ (He calms down halfway thru.) Yet, the rest of a large impressive cast is miraculously right. (Roger Allam in particular as a blunt, slightly thick officer.) No one seems to read FMF anymore. Is the film faithful to the book? As a mini-series, it’s unnervingly watchable and might well improve with a second viewing.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Laughton could often be embarrassing, but at his best, he was an embarrassment with genius.