Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Some critics are touting this as the next Downton Abbey, but other than sharing the same time period, there's nothing similar about it. One has memorable characters, the other does not. One has a basic standard of morality, the other does not. One invites us to condemn adulterous behavior, the other asks us to support it.
Three years after a forced wedding due to an unexpected pregnancy, the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Tietjens is falling apart. Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) is bored with her well-to-do, dull, bookish, sensible Parliamentary husband, Christopher (Benedict Cumberbatch). An influential man in government, he is determined to keep scandal at bay even when she abandons him to live with her lover. Though everyone encourages him to divorce her, Christopher refuses to besmirch his family name and reluctantly takes his wife back when she tires of adultery and reenters society. But in the meantime, he's met and become besotted by the lovely, idealistic suffragist Valentine (Adelaide Clemens).
Impending war with Germany sends their world into chaos as Sylvia tries be faithful, Christopher battles his attraction for a younger, purer woman, and Valentine realizes that her struggle for women's rights pales in comparison to the atrocities abroad. Woven in and out of their lives are former friends and lovers that arise to haunt them, scandals and misbehaviors of all sorts, the occasional madman and a lot of ponderous instances that never quite manage to rise above their lack of self-importance. There are many good things about this miniseries, not the least of which is its cast, which not only features exquisite acting from the main leads but also a host of formidable British talent, ranging from Rupert Everett to Miranda Richardson (and many more). The costuming is lovely and Christopher in particular is a very rich character, torn between his nobility and desires for what he will not allow himself to have.
Yet, the characters are enigmatic and hard to connect to. Sylvia is impossible to like, since she is determined to punish her husband for remaining faithful to her! She hates the idea that he hasn't taken a mistress and this drives all her manipulative actions. It's impossible to understand why any of them behave the way they do, particularly since we have no background on how this marriage happened in the first place. If Christopher is so moral, how did he wind up having sex on a train with a woman he barely knew? I was also utterly bored with all the secondary characters -- the minister who is crazy (an ill-looking Rufus Sewell) and his cheating wife, Valentine's pacifist brother, and so on. More problematic is that the series asks us to root for a man to commit adultery, which eventually he does when he has "overcome" his previous moral reservations. It was a somewhat entertaining, sometimes downright boring five hours that I won't revisit again.
Five sex scenes (two with upper nudity, all with movement); a lengthy scene of a woman bathing in which we often see her breasts; nudity in artwork; backside nudity on a woman; much conversation about homosexuality and sex. A dozen adulterous affairs.
1 GD, 1 audible f-word (possibly 2 more), a half dozen uses of "bitch," mild profanities.
War violence, including some boys being blown up/suffering war wounds. Some blood.
Drinking, a reference to having an abortion.