Perhaps I should begin this review with a reference to my earlier one of Star Trek: Into Darkness, where I posted a picture of Benedict Cumberbatch and lauded his ability to be so, so deliciously ruthless. Well, I went to see the movie again after that review, and upon a second viewing, realized that not only was BC a wonderful actor, he was so wonderful that he actually became the focus of the movie, that he was literally what I was watching and watching for throughout the movie.
Fast forward a month or so, and imagine me, here at home, about to do some tedious work that requires me to sit still for hours on end. My solution: find something on Netflix to play in the background. I consulted my queue and saw Kahn sitting right there! in Sherlock, a BBC show that I’d been meaning to watch for ages but had previously skipped over in favor of other stuff.
So, I watched the show and think it is brilliant!, despite JRP’s objections to SH saving The Woman (which I find to be totally plausible). Then, out of curiousity, I decided to follow BC on Instagram (he’s not on IG, BTW, but Mindy Kaling is!), and found out that he has 155,000+ pictures and videos posted (with 3,000+ added in ONE DAY). I was absolutely blown away by the fandom that has developed for this actor and by their chosen name, the Cumberbitches, and that liking this particular actor has a name as well, in which his name has become a gerund, as in I have been cumberbatched, which loosely translates into being fascinated by him and his work. My astonishment comes from the fact is: Benedict Cumberbatch is not THAT cute. He’s slightly awkward and goofy looking. And, he’s acting in parts that are pretty high on the Geek factor — Star Trek? Sherlock? Stephen Hawking? Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? It’s not like he’s the next Channing Tatum.
So, what is it, then, that inspires such admiration, mostly from girls, who are willing to post thousands of pictures of him and endow themselves with monikers such as “unhealthybenaddiction,” “sherlockedcumberbabe,” and “the cumberqueens”? Perphaps, it is the deep voice? Yes, that’s part of it… and it’s biological, the attraction to men with deep voices (and women with higher pitched voices…). His voice is pretty nice. He is, after all, the voice of Stephen Hawking and Jaguar. Okay, but voice can’t be all of it or we’d have a bunch of RickWOmEn (as in Alan Rickman).
I can’t speak for all of them, of course, but for me, I think it’s that he’s just genuinely a good actor, and I know this after watching Parade’s End, a co-production of HBO and BBC.
This show explores an era that I am woefully lacking in historical and cultural knowledge about (I know who Franz Ferdinand is… kind of… but not much more, at least not much that doesn’t have to do with teaching Frost or Hemingway)– the time period before, during and after World War 1–and it is set in England (mostly). ( Just so you know, I am not a Downton Abbey watcher, so I have no basis of comparison, though I think that show has a similar setting.) The main characters are Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), Sylvia Satterthwaite Tietjens (Rebecca Hall), and Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), who are involved in a very complicated and long-lasting love triangle. The series is written by Tom Stoppard, perhaps best known for Shakespeare in Love but I love Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead best, and is based on the trilogy of novels by Ford Madox Ford.
This series was utterly fascinating, in part because it exposes so much of the issues of the time period. The Tietjens, though, are the real draw to this series. Every decision and action and motivation, every single one, was one that I agonized over with them. Now that I’ve finished watching, I wish more people I know had watched the show or read the books so that we could discuss, in depth, the decisions of all the characters, but none more so than Sylvia.
Throughout the show (and even in the adverts for the show, where Sylvia is called “manipulative” and presented as the one who orchestrates a “destructive marriage” between Christopher and “the beautiful but cruel socialite Sylvia“) Sylvia is cast as the antagonist and villain to Christopher’s heroism,to his stoic and steadfast commitments and his decency. Sylvia and others call him “the last descent man in England,” and he is portrayed as just that. So, what does that make the woman who takes advantage of that decency?
But, it is Valentine, though, who makes us question Sylvia’s villainy, though indirectly. In her suffragette convictions, she shows just how much women had to fight for and just how restrictive society was for women during this era. It is Sylvia, after all, who is forced to marry a man she doesn’t love, Christopher, because she will be ruined and cast out of society because of a pregnancy. And, yes, she doesn’t know who the father is — Christopher or Drake– but the last time I looked, it takes two people to make a baby. While Christopher and Sylvia aren’t in love, she tries the best that she can, given her circumstances, to create a happy and loving marriage. Again, the failed marriage isn’t solely her fault — Christopher does very little to comfort or love her, other than providing her with the protection that his name and their marriage affords her. It is Sylvia who gave penance for five years, who bucked cultural norms to make it to France to try for a last valiant effort of reconciliation, and who was willing to change almost everything about herself to try to fit into his notion of the ideal woman.
While I think that we’re supposed to see Christopher and Valentine’s love as the pure, sweet and good love that we all seek, I wonder if it isn’t Sylvia who shows us what love really is. She spurs Christopher to seek out happiness, to grow and change, to be able to admit that he’s wrong, and to see the world as it is, rather that as he would want it to be. Those lessons come at a great cost, including her own hurt feelings and her potential societal ruin as a divorced woman, but I wonder if the price is worth it, after all. Because Christopher is such a good man, a man who struggles on and strives to do right, it seems like it, at the end since he is, finally, happy. His happiness only comes about because Sylvia finally frustrates him enough that he, too, is willing to go against what society deems acceptable and go after love, instead of tradition.
The series is not flawless, by any means. It plods in certain areas. The social cues and distinctions are not quite explained. The overt visual symbolism becomes a little too much after you’ve seen it for the seeming 100th time. And, sometimes, I just couldn’t understand what the heck they were saying. Adelaide’s portrayal of Valentine was wonderful, but she was weak in comparison to Cumberbatch and Hall, so a stronger actress might have changed the dynamic of the love triangle in interesting ways.
At the end, though, I can say that I am glad to have been cumberbatched long enough to discover this show.