Any Human Heart, PBS

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Gillian Anderson and Tom Hollander as Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor in “Any Human Heart”
Photo courtesy of PBS

‘Any Human Heart’ on PBS Masterpiece Classic

Starring: Matthew Macfadyen, Jim Broadbent, Sam Claflin, Tom Hollander, and Gillian Anderson
(See video clip below.)
Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on PBS
Feb. 13, 20 and 27, 2011

Based on the 2002 novel, “Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart” by William Boyd, this appealing PBS television three-part series purports to be the life-long journals kept by Logan Mountstuart, a writer whose life (1906–1991) spanned the defining events of the 20th century.

Mountstuart’s travels take him to writing in Paris in the 1920s, fighting the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, serving with British intelligence in the 1940s, running a New York art gallery in the 1950s, working with a terrorist cell in the 1970s, and fleeing the gritty London scene to live in rural Provence in the 1980s.

Along his journey, he rubs shoulders with the rich and famous, including the hard-living Ernest Hemingway, the debonair Ian Fleming and the arrogant and vindictive Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Tom Hollander and Gillian Anderson, both excellent).

A major theme in “Any Human Heart” is that people dramatically grow and change over their lifetime, such that they might as well be different people. As Mountstuart puts it, “Every human being is a collection of selves.”

In order to distinguish among the collection of selves in Mountstuart’s life, three actors play him at different ages. Although one may be confused by the sometimes abrupt transitions among the actors, they soon seem transparent and natural.

Mountstuart, the Oxford student, an overconfident wannabe writer, is acted by Sam Claflin (“Pillars of the Earth”). Everything seems to come easily for Mountstuart at this age—good looks, “girls,” and good luck—having his first writing attempt published.

A middle-aged, more pretentious Mountstuart is acted by the able Matthew Macfadyen (“Little Dorrit,” “Pride & Prejudice”). In these prime years, as his early success dries up, he foolishly marries the domineering (but wealthy) Lottie (Emerald Fennell), only to have an affair with his soul-mate Freya (Hayley Atwell), whom he meets in a passport office in Lisbon.

The elderly Mountstuart, both as a 70ish man with some vigor and as a shuffling, lonely old man with a haggard and careworn face, is well-acted by Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent (“Iris,” “Moulin Rouge!”).

At the very start of the series, we see the aged Mountstuart having a fatal heart attack in an empty field in France. So we know how his life ends. Nevertheless, we’re involved in the chronicle of how he, as the gifted young writer, transitions to the solitary, sick old person. Watching these life transitions makes one brood about one’s own life—love, friendship, disappointment, loss, aging and death.

The essence of the production concerns Logan Mountstuart’s intimate life and the various women who capture his heart along the way. In addition to his wife, Lottie and the love of his life, Freya, he has intense relationships with some other women: Tess (Holliday Grainger), the lover of one of his closest friends, Land (Charity Wakefield, “Sense and Sensibility”); a fiery intellectual who dumps him when he writes a potboiler; Gloria (Kim Cattrall), the third wife of that same close friend; and Gabrielle (Valérie Kaprisky, “Breathless”), a neighbor during his retirement in southwest France.

The three actors playing Mountstuart and Michael Samuels’ direction are first rate. Tom Hollander and Ed Stoppard also give fine performances. The series has high production values, with spot-on costumes and settings. I would have relished more of Mountstuart’s run-ins with iconic 20th-century events and personalities. The white light Logan stares into as he contemplates his past gets old quickly.

“Any Human Heart” has charm, wit, romance, poignancy and adventure. We care about Logan Mountstuart. However, he can seem like a zelig who passively shifts his way through the 20th century without vitality or purpose. A firm believer in the concept of luck, both good and bad, Logan fails to take the initiative to improve his life. He remains a “gentleman writer,” even after it is apparent that his writing can no longer sustain him.

The title of the novel and the TV series is from Henry James’ short story, “Louisa Pallant,” which opens: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”

©Emily S. Mendel 2011 All Rights Reserved

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