Words: Josh Blacker
'Any Human Heart': Episode 2
SYNOPSIS: "Jim Broadbent, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Claflin take the lead role in William Boyd's funny, moving and ambitious adaptation of his best-selling novel, exploring one man's tumultuous and unpredictable journey through the 20th century" (Channel4.com)
I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at this second episode of William Boyd’s screen adaptation of his novel Any Human Heart. Perhaps it’s because there was much less sex. But why was that?
'Episode 1' left us with Logan entering his middle age, played by Matthew Macfadyen, with a wife and child in one home, and a pregnant mistress in another, and 'Episode 2' plunges us into a Europe gripped by war. Firstly, the Spanish Civil War, to which Logan is dispatched as a journalist. Here is my first great disappointment.
The Spanish Civil War is an epic tale in itself. It’s a great struggle between ideologies that plunged Spain into a fascist dictatorship – except you wouldn’t know that from 'Any Human Heart'. The closest we get to any battle of ideas is a throwaway quip that the Communists won’t share their ammunition with the Trotskyites. Chortle, chortle, but while it hints at what is going on beyond Logan’s immediate vicinity, it’s not enough to make the viewer think about the historical context.
A line from the last episode, spoken then by his father, is echoed in a voiceover by Logan in this one – "it’s all luck, in the end". At least here we can start to draw some kind of meaning out of the rapidly-moving plot. Logan only makes it to the front because he knows Ernest Hemingway (Julian Ovenden); he becomes rich (again) only because his escort entrusts artworks to him before being killed by a shell; he escapes Europe for most of the Second World War because Ian Fleming (Tobias Menzies) enlists him to naval intelligence....if Boyd hadn’t made sure to remind us it’s all luck and that’s the point, I’d have said this was something of a tenuous plot.
There are moments of real emotion. Not when he announces he is divorcing Lottie (Emerald Fennell), the aristocrat wife he stumbled into marrying in the first episode, or even in his long incarceration when caught as a spy in Switzerland (and when you might imagine a great analysis of loneliness and despair), but they are there if you wait long enough.
The whole thing has such a tension running through it. Following the abdication, we don’t give up on Edward (Tom Hollander) and Mrs Simpson (Gillian Anderson) as he gave up the throne. No, we spend most of the Second World War sitting at home with them, waiting for the newly-appointed Governor of the Bahamas to slip up. Which he does, of course – but we have to wait until the next Episode for the consequences.
The tension, then, is that Logan is a writer, who despite living through the most important events of the twentieth Century, misses them; who despite spending so much time with some of the most interesting characters of the twentieth Century, fails to know them; who despite all this, fails to write about anything. That could very well be the point, and I'm sure it works very well as a novel with more space to explore this failure in. In a TV drama, failure needs to be compulsive viewing to work.
It’s all luck, in the end. And I’m not sure if the gamble of this series is going to pay out.
'Any Human Heart' is aired on Sundays on Channel 4. Both episodes thus far are available on 4oD for a brief period of time for UK users.