A lifetime of memories — in three parts

“Any Human Heart’’ stars Matthew Macfadyen (with Hayley Atwell) as a fictional writer who rises to greatness and falls from grace during the 20th century. “Any Human Heart’’ stars Matthew Macfadyen (with Hayley Atwell) as a fictional writer who rises to greatness and falls from grace during the 20th century. (Joss Barratt)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 12, 2011

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Unfortunately, “Any Human Heart’’ arrives in the afterglow of the extraordinarily excellent “Downton Abbey.’’ As a result, this new three-part installment of PBS’s “Masterpiece Classic’’ just may get a less eager welcome than it deserves. While it’s not the triumph that “Downton’’ was, it’s a special, lovely miniseries that lingers in your imagination like a richly drawn memoir. Yes, “Masterpiece’’ fans, we’re entering “embarrassment of riches’’ territory.

Written by William Boyd and based on his novel, the miniseries tells the story of a fictional writer named Logan Mountstuart. In the course of his life, which runs along the course of the 20th century, Logan rubs elbows with Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (played briefly but effectively by Tom Hollander and Gillian Anderson). He’s on hand for the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and he dabbles in radical activities in the 1960s. Logan rises to greatness, he falls from grace, he rises and falls again.

It does sound a little like “Forrest Gump,’’ I know, but this is an entirely different type of entertainment. The miniseries is intimate and layered with an atmosphere of sorrow, as it starts with images of the aged Logan shuffling around old boxes from his past and flashing back. “Any Human Heart’’ — the title is taken from a Henry James quote — has a gorgeous, almost hallucinogenic pace, as the narrative moves seamlessly in and out of episodes in Logan’s life. A flowing collection of vague childhood memories, sharper adult moments, dark realizations, and happy adventures, the miniseries re-creates the way we remember and browse through our experiences.

The most interesting effect in “Any Human Heart’’ has Logan being played by a handful of rather different-looking actors, with three in particular standing out: Sam Claflin as the student and young man, Matthew Macfadyen as the middle-aged gentleman, and Jim Broadbent as the saddened elder. It’s as if the miniseries follows three separate people, but then that’s one of the story’s themes — that, as Logan says, “Every human being is a collection of selves.’’ At points in our lives, as we grow or, alas, shrink in wisdom, and as our cares and loves make permanent homes on our faces, we are indeed different people.

All three actors do a fine job, although Macfadyen — so memorable recently in both “Little Dorrit’’ and “The Pillars of the Earth’’ — gets the juiciest material. Claflin’s Logan is a stiff, pretentious romantic at Oxford, struggling to lose his virginity and get a novel published. Broadbent’s Logan is brittle, too, from a long life lived hard and a diet that includes dog food. But Macfadyen’s Logan finds true love with the soulful Freya (Hayley Atwell) and, later, true sex, with a madcap woman played jauntily by Kim Cattrall. This Logan has a warmth and passion that escapes his other selves, and he also lives through the most exciting events. He’s the Logan who dallies with the royals and inspires the ghost-faced wrath of the duchess, who hisses at him, “Judas.’’

Some of the chapters of Logan’s life are absurd, particularly the spy stuff. And the leaps in time are occasionally awkward. But the occasional rolling or blinking of the eye doesn’t mar the power of the overall tale as it runs forward. “Any Human Heart’’ is a lush, absorbing sketch of a man and the many lives he led.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

MASTERPIECE CLASSIC: Any Human Heart Starring: Matthew Macfadyen, Jim Broadbent, Hayley Atwell, Sam Claflin, Samuel West, Gillian Anderson, Kim Cattrall

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tomorrow night, 9-10:30