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World on Fire: Series 1 - WWII drama ends on an emotional high (review)

World on Fire

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4.5 out of 5

IT WAS fitting that BBC World War II drama World on Fire should reach its climax on Remembrance Sunday given its sensitive but utterly compelling depiction of that terrible conflict.

From the start, Peter Bowker’s scripts have sought to examine the impact of the war on all sides: from traumatised First World War veterans turned pacifists to Polish resistance fighters, via heroic British soldiers and even sympathetic Germans.

And while there were undoubtedly times when it felt like there were too many characters jostling for position, or certain stories relied too heavily on contrivance and coincidence, Bowker managed to pull off an incredible feat by making us care for pretty much every one of them.

This was a series designed to showcase the human and emotional cost of war. As such, it often left a haunting impression, often etched across the faces of those experiencing the trials and tribulations of living under the boot-print of Adolf Hitler’s march across Europe.

The Polish perspective was particularly eye-opening, given how it exposed their suffering, as well as their abandonment at the start of hostilities. In the character of Kasia (magnificently played by young actress, Zofia Wichlacz), there was a heart-breaking focal point… a former sweetheart waitress turned cold-blooded killer, whose admission in the final moments that her former innocence had been lost was truly sobering.

Kasia played the character’s emotional journey extremely well throughout… from her selfless sacrifice in the opening episode, in which she jettisoned her chance of escape with new husband Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King) in favour of saving her young brother, through to the moment where she first took the life of a German soldier. By the season’s close, she had all but lost her humanity and not even an unlikely reunion with Harry (sent back to Poland on a mission to extract resistance fighters) brought any sense of relief or joy.

Poland’s plight left an indelible impression. As did that of three German characters, the Rosslers, whose tragic trajectory offered a glimpse of everyday Germans forced to live in the shadow of the Reich and all of its abominations.

The Rosslers had an epileptic daughter, whose condition was frowned upon by the so-called Superior race, who created a euthanasia programme designed at rooting out anyone deemed not worthy enough to be a part of it. Family patriarch Uwe did everything in his power to keep the dark forces from his door, even joining the party in a bid to escape attention.

But in one of the most harrowing chapters of the series, Frau Rossler (Victoria Mayer) was eventually moved to kill her daughter and then take her own life rather than send her away to the programme. It was a moving insight into the suffering experienced by Germans, too… a nuanced, balanced, multi-faceted approach to storytelling that exposed the hardships and horrors on both sides.

In these instances, World of Fire exposed the complexities of war, as well as the senseless nature of it. No one was safe… no life too young to take or corrupt.

And while some have been moved to question some of the historical inaccuracies, there’s no denying that the show achieved what it sought to in spectacular fashion.

The ensemble, for instance, was uniformly excellent. Lesley Manville and Sean Bean, in particular, shone, as, respectively, bitter widower Robina Chase and war veteran Douglas Bennett. They shared some brilliant scenes together and apart, examining the implications of the war from an older, supposedly wiser perspective.

For Douglas, it was about balancing the responsibility of fatherhood with his inherent fear and anxiety, caused by his own experiences in the First World War; while for Robina, it was about coming to terms with her anger and grief at the loss of her husband, who – it turned out – had taken his own life because of his own inability to cope with the fallout from WWI.

Again, these were layered, intelligent performances, full of complexity. Getting to know and understand them was a privilege, even when we found ourselves not agreeing with them. But their hurt and anguish was often plain for everyone to see.

World on Fire

Leading man Hauer-King also brought quiet bravery and dignity to his role as Robina’s son, Harry… a man who grew into a reluctant leader on the battlefield, but who couldn’t get his romantic life right. He was as noble as he was haunted throughout… a decent man hamstrung by circumstances beyond his control, yet always striving to do his best for the sake of others.

World on Fire was populated by characters such as this. And it unfolded on both a grand scale and an intimate one.

And if the intimate came from the characters, the grand came from the backdrop of war-torn Europe: never more so than in the Dunkirk sequences, which were brilliantly realised on a modest scale. The enormity of the evacuation wasn’t lost on viewers, even though there were no grand-standing sequences.

Rather, there was heroism as well as cowardice on display, as young men lined the sandy beaches hoping to find a way back home before being mown down or blown to bits by passing German fighter planes. The scenes in question were every bit as effective – and affecting – as those in Christopher Nolan’s similarly excellent Dunkirk.

The final episode avoided trying to wrap things up neatly, or deliver unconvincing happy endings for one and all. True, the cliffhanger nature of the final scene did make me sigh with relief when the fade to black was quickly replaced by “World on Fire will return”.

But it also left things on a messy note. The war is far from over. Lives remain in the balance. And the emotional consequences of what has already transpired continues to hang over just about everyone involved. There are no easy answers.

Hence, as a nation paid grateful tribute to the real-life heroes who sacrificed so much during the dark days and years of World War II throughout Remembrance Sunday, so viewers were able to pay extra tribute as World on Fire reached its close. This was an intelligent, adult drama that was as powerful and moving as it was haunting and poignant.

News of a second series is extremely welcome.