Any Human Heart debuts tonight on PBS as a part of the Masterpiece Classic series. It will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific/8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets, but you should check local listings.
Television is often the ideal medium for adapting an epic novel that attempts to capture the sweep of a character’s life. A film—even a three hour one—will inevitably have to chop out some of the evolution and will often unnecessarily play up the things that will play big on a larger screen (wars and explosions and such). In a television miniseries, however, there’s actually a chance to dig down deep, to dramatize both the story of the novel and the sweep of the character’s life. The four-and-a-half hours that PBS’ new miniseries Any Human Heart takes to depict the well-regarded novel of the same name by William Boyd have a tendency to drag on here and there, but they’re also possessed of moments of high emotions, moments that wouldn’t work nearly as well without all of that time preceding them. By the time the viewer gets to the end of the third segment, whatever the problems of the mini as a whole, there will definitely be a sense of seeing a man’s life in nearly its entirety.
Boyd’s novel follows the life of Logan Mountstuart, a young man in Britain in the 1920s who hopes to be a novelist and to lose his virginity. From there, the story traces Logan’s life erratically through the following decades, until he dies in the early ‘90s. The novel is told entirely through the voice of Logan’s journals, which provide a certain insight into the way Logan sees the world, himself, and his numerous romantic conquests. Logan finds success as a novelist early on in his life in both book and miniseries (which is also scripted by Boyd), but he encounters crippling writers block, then spends the ensuing decades bouncing from job to job, location to location. He’s imprisoned during World War II. He spends time in the New York City scene of the ‘50s and ‘60s (depicted here somewhat ridiculously with things that should have been banished long ago, like characters saying, "Groovy"). He gets involved in a murder mystery. He meets famous authors and others like some sort of literary Forrest Gump (particularly in the mini, where he just seems to happen upon these famous people, and there’s always someone there to say something like, “How do you do, Ernest Hemingway?”).
You can likely see the immense problems with adapting Any Human Heart to a cinematic form already. Since so much of the novel is contained within journal entries, this necessarily means that depicting Logan’s point-of-view and inner monologue will be necessarily important to any adaptation, but something like that is awfully hard to do on screen without resorting to voiceover (something the miniseries does very little of, thankfully). While the miniseries is good at any other number of things, including depicting the idea that all of these things we’re seeing are remembrances torn from the pages of journals via clever editing, it never gets over this hump, and that means that long portions of the miniseries—particularly in tonight’s episode—feel almost too dry and uneventful. Unlike in the novel, where the reader is inside of Logan’s head from the start, getting inside Logan’s head here is a trickier proposition. It likely won’t be until somewhere in the middle of the second episode that this begins to click.
Furthermore, because all of this is from Logan’s point-of-view, it becomes harder and harder to understand the people in his life, particularly the women. His school chums and his son make sense, more or less, perhaps because Logan can understand them easily enough, but the many, many fascinating women he crosses paths with become a long series of archetypes that never take on real life. The nicely understated British actress Hayley Atwell manages to make her character, Freya, Logan’s second wife and the love of his life, stand out from the crowd, but that may just be because she’s asked to play nothing more difficult than “dream girl.” The other women in his life—from first wife Lottie to longtime lover Gloria—are nothing more than the sum collection of Logan’s changing feelings on them. Lottie seems shrill and closed-off, but we never really get to know why because Logan doesn’t know why (and the actress, Emerald Fennell, simply can’t find her way in). Gloria bounces through Logan’s life and doesn’t make much of an impression, even though she’s played by Kim Cattrall for at least some of her screentime. (The miniseries similarly wastes such strong actresses as Holliday Grainger and Gillian Anderson in parts that are unable to be elevated by their talents.)
There’s also a problem with the fact that tragic events that can work on the page often feel ridiculous when depicted on screen. Literally everything that Logan touches seems to turn to shit after his early successes. (The book actually has even more bad stuff happen to Logan. Boyd at least knew enough about adaptation to pare some of this down for the miniseries.) There are moments here that approach tragedy—as when Logan receives some bad news after leaving his World War II captivity—but the long stream of bad things that happen to the guy eventually start to feel tiring and ridiculous. Sure, life is often tragic and Logan may be recording ONLY the bad things in his journals, but the effect is grinding on screen. By the time the miniseries has caught up with Logan in old age—a time when friends are being taken from him by more natural means and he’s reduced to eating dog food—the pile of misery has become largely unbelievable. (The miniseries doesn’t help itself by often overselling the dramatic moments. It’s not enough to have Logan root through the rubble of a bombed-out building for a memento of a loved one. He also has to howl melodramatically at the sky when he finds it.)
But if there’s a strength to the miniseries, it’s the depiction of Logan. At first, it seems as though the story will fall into the old pit of having the old Logan (Jim Broadbent) look over the large collection of items he’s scrounged away over the course of his life, then flashing back to his life as a young man. The book suggested that there are many versions of the self, that we become an essentially different person in old age from the person we were when we were young. The miniseries captures that idea beautifully, with the three actors who play Logan at various ages standing on the shore of a river, looking out at an actor meant to depict him as a young boy. Logan the boy, Logan the youth, Logan the man, and Logan the elderly are all the same man but also so different as to be almost unknowable from each other. And Broadbent is certainly a strong enough actor to make the old-age material come alive, even when the misery threatens to bury it. The miniseries may rely a little too heavily on Matthew MacFadyen as Logan the man, but MacFadyen often rises to the challenge, particularly in the World War II sections. (He has shakier results once Logan is in his 50s and living in New York.)
There are things to recommend in all three parts of Any Human Heart, but it’s hard to argue the whole thing holds together quite as well as it should. Boyd, the three Logans, and director Michael Samuels find startling moments in all three parts—particularly Samuels, who creates beautiful shots seemingly off the top of his head and keeps the pacing unpredictable—but the miniseries ultimately can’t overcome its problems with depicting anyone outside of Logan’s head (particularly women) and the contrivances of the plot. Any Human Heart is certainly interesting; it’s just not, ultimately, very good.