Begins Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 9 p.m. on HBO, and continues Wednesday and Thursday at 9 p.m.
As no admirer of "Parade's End" will dispute, the Ford Madox Ford tetralogy never won much of a readership. The reasons aren't difficult to fathom. Demandingly cumbersome, with a narrative that lurches back and forth with impossible suddenness—a feature that brought Ford acclaim for a kind of breakthrough modernism—the novels are a challenge. They are also and above all works of extraordinary psychological depth, the products of a novelist who saw human nature with the keenest—the coldest—of eyes and created characters accordingly. To know this is to grasp all the better the size of Tom Stoppard's triumph in this adaptation, which delivers those Fordian characters in full voice. Not to mention a narrative of wonderfully un-Fordian cohesiveness.
No character emerges in fuller voice, for all his silence, than the novel's hero, Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), son of a Yorkshire country gentleman, who clings stubbornly to old values—as Tietjens saw the world, you didn't talk about your feelings or, for that matter, think about them. He's a believer in monogamy, he flatly asserts, and he holds the view, as well, that any man who divorces his wife is a rotter—a great many pronouncements for a man otherwise of few words. These—in particular his opinion on divorcing a wife—have been wrested from him by circumstance.
He'd been tricked into marriage after a brief encounter with the beautiful and soulless socialite Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), the ceaselessly disparaging virago of a wife who will haunt his life. She had been impregnated by someone else, as even Tietjens strongly suspects—and says as much to his close friend, on the way to the wedding ceremony. Still, for all his grimness, the groom-to-be recalls the fire of that first sexual encounter with Sylvia—it took place on a passenger train—and that there was something magnificent about the woman.
Moment after moment the drama deepens, the rich complexity of Ford's characters make themselves felt in all their strangeness and variety. Nowhere more compellingly, perhaps, than in the case of Sylvia, a conniver and liar bored with all the world, not least with the husband whose very work she cannot bear, she says—he's employed by the Imperial Department of Statistics. There he sits making corrections to an encyclopedia, she shrieks—a sight that fills her with such rage she hurls crockery at him.
It isn't his work, of course, that Sylvia can't stand in her husband. It's her sure sense of the decency in him, his trustworthiness and principles—powers that keep her in thrall to him, that make the lovers she runs off with for a few days look like fools and undesirables, that send her running home to Tietjens. All this she clearly recognizes without losing a trace of the malign disposition that drives her to wreak havoc on his life.
It is that life that is the core of this saga, set in the years prior to, and through, the Great War. Part of the story and one or two of its characters roughly mirror those in Ford's own notably complicated personal life, replete with affairs and devoted mistresses. The same could hardly be said of his hero, Tietjens, forever loyal to the young suffragette Valentine (Adelaide Clemens), who wins his heart.
With every passing scene—whether at home, comforting the child who is probably not his but whom he dearly loves (unlike Sylvia, who despises her son), or at the front, amid the horrors of the trenches—it becomes harder to imagine a more perfect Tietjens than the one Mr. Cumberbatch provides. As Ford conceived him he was a man of few words, whose intense emotional life lay hidden from the world. In Mr. Cumberbatch's Tietjens, that inner world is on eloquent display at every turn, wordlessly for the most part. It's a portrayal enchanting in its delicacy, moving in its passion and one—like the series itself—unfailing in its power.
Begins Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 10 p.m. on CBS.
"Golden Boy" looks, at first sight, like one of those happy novelties that sometimes come along in television—in this case, a police series, created by Nicholas Wootton, whose tone and characters aren't instantly predictable. That it's a lot more than that novelty—an imaginative enterprise distinguished by skillful writing, with a cast to match, reveals itself quickly. The impressively explosive opening scene, involving extraordinary heroism by a young patrolman, sets the stage for the story to come. On the job for just three years, beat cop Walter Clark (Theo James) is, by way of reward, promoted to the rank of detective and offered the assignment of his choice. He chooses the Homicide Task Force, to the consternation of veteran detectives who view him as presumptuous and unready.
This choice we learn, via periodic flash-forwards to the future, had begun the career of the man who would become the youngest police commissioner in New York City. Here he is, telling the story of his rise to a reporter. So persuasive is the semidocumentary tone, viewers not up to speed on New York's police commissioners could well come away with the impression that Clark had been one of them.
It would be hard to mind if he had been. Clark is an immensely appealing character, portrayed altogether convincingly by Mr. James. (Viewers of "Downton Abbey," season one, caught a glimpse of him as Mr. Pamuk, the devilishly handsome Turkish visitor whose uninvited night visit to Lady Mary's bedroom nearly ruined her life—and, of course, ended his own.)
Young Detective Clark's life is burdened by interesting family problems—not least a troubled younger sister, Agnes (Stella Maeve), who's keeping dangerous company and for whom he's assumed responsibility—and memories of his drug-addicted mother, who abandoned her children.
His life on the job is complicated by the hostility of fellow Detective Arroyo (an admirably menacing Kevin Alejandro). It's enhanced, in important ways, by the stern fatherly guidance of his soon-to-retire partner, Detective Owen, played by Chi McBride, who brings a refreshing edge to this stock character.
"Golden Boy" is packed with fine performances, but no amount of actorly talent could have done for this series what its intelligently twisty plots, its nuanced dialogue bearing a distinct resemblance to human exchange—even from the mouths of TV police detectives—has done.
Corrections & Amplifications
In the television series "Golden Boy," created by Nicholas Wootton, the character played by Theo James has been on the job for three years. An earlier version of this review misspelled the creator's surname and said Mr. James's character had been on the job for three months.
A version of this article appeared February 22, 2013, on page D6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Battlegrounds of Love and War.