A good reviewer is not supposed to give the game away early, but I can’t help but gush: If you haven’t seen Any Human Heart when it aired on PBS, you will have an opportunity to watch the episodes online the Monday after its initial showing, from Feb 14 to March 22, and two more weeks to catch the last two episodes on screen (February 20 & February 27).
Some critics have dismissed this mini-series as another Forrest Gump story, wherein the fictional hero moves through the 20th century and rubs shoulders with famous people. I can assure you that this is the only trait that these two movies have in common, for one is filmed from the perspective of magic realism and the other is a gritty view of a man’s life and his failures and successes. I began to watch the first episode of Any Human Heart when I had the time to view the DVD from start to end. I was glad that I had five free hours, for I could not stop watching it. The opening credits had a similar feel to the opening of Mad Men, which clued me in that this mini-series would not offer a one-note plot (I have not read William Boyd’s book, but intend to), and that cigarettes would be used as a prop. I was right.
We meet Logan Mountstuart almost immediately in all of his personifications (in misty watercolor memories) – from childhood,
to young man,
to mature man,
to an old man reminiscing about his life.
“I’m all these different people,” he thinks as the camera pans to a misty scene of a river bank. “Which life is truly mine?”
Logan rummages through the detritus of his life, burning memories (much as Cassandra Austen burned her sister Jane’s letters) and looking over his journals. “Your past never leaves you,” he says early on.
There are many reasons to watch Any Human Heart, not the least of which are the performances.
Logan is a flawed, egotistical man whose ambition to write his great novel eludes him. Too often he is ruled by his heart, not his head, and he is easily influenced by external events and his own and other peoples’ desires. Matthew captures this man perfectly. We see him happy and content only with Freya.
For the rest of his life he compromises, and it becomes a struggle. Not that his love story with Freya is without fault, for Logan leaves his wife and son to be with her. I am a child of divorce whose father never bothered to come and visit, and so I thought myself incapable of feeling much empathy for a man who abandons his son and sleeps with his friend’s girlfriend and wife, but Matthew MacFadyen’s performance had me riveted.
Logan’s character is complex, and Matthew portrays all his shades in such a way that, although I found Logan’s actions often repellent, I also felt sorry for the choices he made and how the plans of his youth unraveled. “Life has to be encountered with an ignorance of sheer faith.” Ah, Logan.
During the first two episodes, Broadbent’s role as Logan in old age is largely silent, but in this actor’s skilled hands, the viewer knows exactly what is happening and why.
When Broadbent finally takes center stage in the third episode, the final chapter of Logan’s life is told. Now old and bent and poor again (for his assignments as a reporter have dried up), he has taken to eating dog food to stay alive and selling newspapers for a radical group.
The older Logan reviews his life through the lens of knowledge and experience, and what he sees and remembers makes him wince. “We never stay the same person. We change as we grow older. It’s part of the story of our life.”
With The King’s Speech up for a gazillion awards, this is a propitious time to portray Wallis Simpson, and Gillian has taken on the part with gusto.
At any moment I expected her to morph into Gloria Swanson and say “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” or perhaps Morticia, I can’t decide. Not a single person in my social group admires Wallis Simpson, for her reputation as a sexual predator and icy fashionista, and knowledge of her dominatrix control over David have preceded her. Neither the Duchess nor Duke of Windsor come off well in this production.
The viewer can think of their story line as Chapter 2, after David abdicated as king in The King’s Speech. As for Gillian, she is carving out quite a career for herself in these spectacular BBC and PBS dramas, and I can’t wait to see more from her. Her performance in this series is over-the-top dramatic, but then wasn’t Wallis herself?
The same goes for Kim, who has recently been flexing her acting muscles onstage in London and in substantial parts such as My Boy Jack and as Gloria Scabalius in this production. She (and Gillian for that matter) show no vanity, allowing themselves to be filmed with makeup that is too white and heavy, as middle aged women who were once beautiful are often wont to do, and play the parts of cougars.
In Kim’s case this is literal, as her character, Gloria, has the habit of leaving her mark on her men. She cheats on her husband (Peter Scabius, Logan’s friend), and goes after Logan like a heat-seeking missile.
Her final scenes with Logan are full of pathos. (I could not help but think of an ailing Liz Taylor or Zsa Zsa Gabor.) Perhaps Kim will shrug off the bad after effects of that excruciatingly awful film, Sex in the City 2, and accept only meatier roles from now on.
You just have to love an actor who is willing to play a weak, self-indulgent, and dangerous man, and capture that personality to a tee. Tom Hollander’s performance as The Duke of Windsor personifies what I think of the former king. As a teenager I read several biographies about the Windsors, thinking like so many others that the king’s willingness to abdicate his throne for the woman he loved was romantic. Well, it was not.
In this series we see the Windsors for what they are: willing to ruin other peoples’ lives and to use others in order to maintain their self-important but insignificant status. They were stupid and dangerous snobs who hobnobbed with carpet baggers, the nouveau riche and dangerous factions. Tom Hollander portrays the duke as a mighty mite, and he does it perfectly.
One can believe that a man can lose his head, senses, and heart to a woman as beautiful as Freya (Haley). She’s smart, totally in love with her man, and too good to be true. Plus, she smokes as much as Logan. (Some of the scenes were so Bette-Davis-1930’s, where the man offers to light the woman’s cigarette, and so much can be said cinematically through the gestures of a cupped hand touching the other and looks of longing behind curtains of smoke.)
I don’t think I have ever seen an actress look lovelier in 1940’s dresses than Haley, and in this role she is the personification of Logan’s idea of a perfect woman. As he said, “Time away from Freya is time lost forever.”
The cast of Any Human Heart is so strong that I could continue gushing for another hour. I suppose this mini-series might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I certainly will be watching it again. Simply put, I found it outstanding.
More on the topic:
- For a synopsis of this series, click on this link to PBS.
- Any Human Heart Features a Number of Jane Austen Characters
- Any Human Heart: William Boyd on Telling the Story of the 20th Century