Going into the Masterpiece Classic presentation of "Any Human Heart" on DVD, I had conflicting thoughts.
First up was that though I haven't read the book its based on by William Boyd, he is one of my favorite writers, with his last two thrillers, "Restless" and "Ordinary Thunderstorms," being two of the genre's best. And second, though as a Southerner I probably shouldn't admit this so regularly, I really can't much at all stand "Forrest Gump," so the story structure of "Any Human Heart," one man's life through most of the 20th century in which he rubs elbows with many famous people, gave me pause.
Thankfully, Boyd's story really borrows only that basic outline from "Gump," but with less overbearing sentimentality and a lot more, sometimes very dark, wit. Boyd's novel and the four-part BBC series presented here tell the story of "writer" Logan Mountstuart, with the quotation marks in place because though he accomplished and experienced many things in his long life, he only managed to write two novels.
Though the four-and-a-half-hour long series is a bit bloated by thoroughly unnecessary fantasy sequences that pop up throughout starring Mountstuart as a child, he's for the most part played by three very good English actors, Sam Claflin as the college-age Mountstuart, Matthew MacFadyen (who the ladies may remember from the version of "Pride & Prejudice" also starring Keira Knightley) as him in middle age, and the great Jim Broadbent as Mountstuart the elder.
Throughout Mountstuart's saga, however, it's the women he loved and lost that play the most important parts. As the story opens, Broadbent's Mountstuart, clearly in fading health, is putting back together the pieces of his life using his memories of the women who had made it memorable. Standing out in a large ensemble are the radiant Hayley Atwell as Freya, the real love of his life, Kim Cattrall as Gloria, who gives the series much of its soul, and an unrecognizable but very funny Gillian Anderson as the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson.
Anderson and co-conspirator Tom Hollander as the duke bring a comic edge to the story as Mountstuart, enlisted as a "spy" during World War II, mostly spends his time tracking down what happened to the former king after the story told in "The King's Speech," at least as Boyd imagines it. Often dark humor thankfully runs throughout "Any Human Heart," as when later in life Mountstuart, simply in search of cheap health care, ends up brushing up against Germany's Baader Meinhof gang and later, in his last romantic conquest, gets involved with a French woman more than a little confused about her ancestry.
But the beauty of "Any Human Heart" often comes not from these grand adventures (he also manages to meet Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming, who recruits him into the spying ranks), but in the failures that make for a well-rounded life. As Mountstuart manages to crap out on two marriages he was never terribly interested in and then get involved with his dead son's 16-year-old girlfriend (yes, he is more than a bit of a cad), it becomes harder and harder to cheer for him, but Macfadyen's layered performance makes you appreciate the man in whole, many warts and all.
In the end, though, it's Broadbent who both gives the story its arc and brings it home with tenderness, particularly in his scenes with Cattrall, ultimately making this well worth checking out when it hits DVD next Tuesday, April 5 (yes, I'm writing this a bit early because it doubles as a newspaper column that comes out on Friday.)
P.S.: One final note about editing: Though I didn't manage to catch this when it aired on PBS, I've heard that it was rather poorly edited, perhaps to remove some of the racier scenes that make Mountstuart's life so enjoyable, but this is the complete BBC version, so there's no need to worry about that.