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Any Human Heart - First episode reviewed

Any Human Heart

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

CHANNEL 4’s sweeping historical drama Any Human Heart got off to a solid if unspectacular start on Sunday (November 21, 2010).

Adapted by William Boyd from his own novel of the same name, the four-parter boasts extremely lavish production values, a top drawer cast and enough worldy-wise anecdotes to populate a lifetime.

At its core, the story offers an intimate journey exploring one man’s tumultuous and unpredictable journey through the 20th Century. That man is ambitious novelist Logan Mountstuart (played variously by Jim Broadbent, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Claflin), whose journey brings him into contact with key events and personalities from that century.

The ensuing hour and three quarters began with an old, frail Mountstuart (Broadbent) sifting through journals (which the novel took the form of) and recalling his formative years (now played by Claflin) spent at Oxford attempting to lose his virginity and acquire a publishing deal.

He does both, of course… the former to the flirty lover of one of his best friends, and the latter after gaining experience of a prostitute with a past while in Spain.

But not for Mountstuart is the notion of loyalty or even fidelity, as subsequent sexual encounters and an ill-thought through marriage reveal him to be a self-centred individual who only exists for the good things in life (so far).

Mountstuart’s early years are played with suitable charisma by newcomer Claflin, who combines a sort of Hugh Grant-ish English charm with something a little more calculated and sinister. He was a believably naive and optimistic guide… open to all that life through at him (transgressions and all), and determined to make the most of every opportunity.

Whether this made him likeable, though, was one of the opening episode’s biggest problems… and a point that was only exacerbated once Macfadyen took over the middle aged portion of his life.

As Macfadyen began, Mountstuart was unhappily married and a reluctant father, suffering from writer’s block and searching for a new lease of life. He found it through journalism and a subsequent encounter with BBC journalist Freya (Hayley Atwell).

The affair that ensued culminated with the last act reveal that Freya was pregnant and that a subsequent trip to Spain (and its civil war) should provide him with the opportunity to decide whether he wanted to take such a commitment seriously. From his exasperated final look, we doubt it.

Macfadyen, like Claflin, played the part impeccably – as a stiff upper lipped but desperate man struggling with his position in life. But while being fallible is one thing… a serial womaniser is another, and – as yet – the character is difficult to warm to.

It’s a failing not particularly aided by the direction, which is occasionally heavy-handed in its attempts to be ultra sylish. Extreme close-ups and odd camera angles sometimes pull you out of the story in the say that Tom Ford did with A Single Man.

Likewise, the occasional ‘intrusion’ of history… whether it be via a fleeting appearance from Churchill at a urinal (a wordless cameo) or from King Edward and Mrs Simpson (Tom Hollander and Gillian Anderson). It is to be hoped (and suspected) that actors of such quality won’t merely be reduced to glib cameos.

That said, Any Human Heart did manage to engross and definitely gained momentum as early frivolty gave way to more adult concerns late on… and as historical events became ever more serious (episode two promises to plunge us into the Second World War).

It also provided plenty of food for thought in the musings and observations of its key characters – most notably, ‘remember this, son, it’s just luck in the end, that’s all life is: all the good luck you had and all the bad luck, that’s the only story’…. or ‘life has to be encountered with a mixture of sheer ignorance and blind faith. Sheer ignorance because you can’t know what will happen – ever. And blind faith that this time the roll of the dice will bring you luck’.

One other compelling reason for tuning in is the presence of the divine Ms Atwell… every bit the siren dressed in red who swept Mountstuart off his feet, but a feisty, level-headed woman who appears to be way ahead of her time in attitude and thinking. The first episode came to life whenever she illuminated the screen…

The building blocks are in place, so let’s hope Any Human Heart can deliver on the emotional fireworks suggested by Broadbent’s world-weary looks.