Dir. Michael Samuels
(2011, Not Rated, 284 min)

Any Human Heart, a four-part Masterpiece Theater miniseries adapted by William Boyd from his own novel, is one of those stories about a fictional man whose life becomes interlaced with the important events of history, and on paper it could be extremely silly. Logan Mountstuart, shown at three different periods throughout the 20th Century, became a writer; befriended Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming; joined Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division; tangled with Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor (who abdicated the British throne to marry his American mistress); spent a year in a Swiss prison; and later became an unwitting socialist freedom fighter in 1970s Europe. It’s a wonder that we never noticed the esteemed Mr. Mountstuart in the background of Carlos or The King’s Speech.

Silly it might have been, but silly it’s not, and that’s a credit to director Michael Samuels, who vividly conveys the fullness of life. With superb editing by Tim Murrell and cinematography by Wojciech Szepel, he evokes the lingering melancholy of memory, how it can be triggered by a touch, an object, a scent. A hug as an adult reminds him of the embrace of his mother in his youth; the eyes of a new acquaintance become the eyes of a lost love. As Logan grows older, there is less and less life ahead of him and more behind, and all that’s left are his memories. In old age he is played by Jim Broadbent, and watching how he regards the youth of a new era – who regard him like a ridiculous relic – we feel an intimate sympathy for him, and a clear sense of how little the condescending young folk really understand of the passage of time.

Logan is played as a young man by Sam Claflin and as an adult by Matthew Macfadyen, but throughout the miniseries are images of him as a boy in a boat. Is it a dream or a memory? Logan himself isn’t sure, but he seems throughout his life to be haunted by the way time passes – where he’s been, what lies ahead, and what he’s left behind. The important people in his life he loses to tragedy, age, and his own mistakes. Broadbent had a memorable line in the otherwise unremarkable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which I’ve quoted before: “We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away”; Logan reached that age early and then just kept on living. How sad it must be to lose things, not all at once, but gradually and relentlessly.

But this is not a ponderous film, and that is one of its chief virtues. It is elegiac but not dreary, full of humor and visual energy. That, I think, is what distinguishes this and other PBS miniseries from many of HBO‘s lavishly produced but staid period dramas (Mildred Pierce, John Adams, Elizabeth I). Any Human Heart is literate and poignant, but nimble. It’s got blood in its veins.

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