I was told before I started watching this that if I persevered past the first episode then I'd enjoy it. That advice was sound, though I can't help thinking that isn't the way to draw viewers to a five part series. While I understand the need to frame the story correctly, I think much of what was covered in the first fragmented episode could have been inserted elsewhere in the form of flashbacks (which we got anyway) so that the first episode didn't become a mess of confusing images. It set up back-story, yes, but at the expense of front-story.
To briefly surmise: Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) married Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) when he discovered she was pregnant, despite not being certain that the baby was his. That act sums up his whole demeanour - he is a noble man, often misrepresented and a product of the past on a collision course with the future. Although he falls in love with Valentine Wallop (Adelaide Clemens) he clings on to the remnants of his marriage even while Sylvia indulges in affairs and stays with him only to make him suffer. She is a thoroughly despicable character with few - if any - redeeming features. It's a mark of how well Rebecca Hall portrays her that I detest the character and not the actress.
WWI is an integral aspect of this story. Tietjens shuns protection in order to go into the trenches, struggling with memory loss and shell shock after his first return from the trenches. We see more when he goes back, experiencing the destruction and pointlessness through Tietjens eyes. There are a few bitter comic moments as orders are given and rescinded and the establishment proves itself to be the incompetent force that history depicts. These are grim moments of humour but in an adaptation as heavy as this I'll take whatever I can get.
I don't mean to say that it wasn't a good adaptation of a good original story by Ford Madox Ford. It is very forceful in places, dramatic in others and emotional when the cap fits. It has an excellent supporting cast including Roger Allam as General Campion, Rupert Everett as Mark Tietjens and Miranda Richardson as Mrs Wannop. There is also a spectacular performance from Rufus Sewell as Reverend Duchemin, a mad vicar who perturbs both other characters and the audience.
There is a lot crammed into five hours: war, suffrage, marriage, infidelity, deceit and misunderstandings. As a consequence, it is very heavy and requires attention. That said, if you make it past the first episode then there are some exquisite scenes to enjoy. The period detail is wonderful and it is beautifully shot and presented. There are a few particular scenes which stick in my head. The first is when Christopher and Valentine get lost in the fog and spend the night looking for the way home. It's beautifully set-up and executed and sets the tone for their romance. Secondly, there is a quiet little scene when Christopher is showing his son, Michael, the well at the family estate. It's a touching little moment, although I can't really explain why.
All in all, I'd recommend persevering with this, though don't expect an easy ride.