narrative films Any Human Heart

A film written by William Boyd
Directed by Michael Samuels
2010 – BBC / PBS Masterpiece Theater

The television miniseries, Any Human Heart, offers a surprising shock for students of the Red Army Faction era; four hours into this excellent exploration of the life of a British novelist from the Depression era through the 1990s, we find the novelist suddenly joining the Socialists Patients Collective and working on behalf of the Red Army Faction.

Any Human Heart, based on the 2002 novel by acclaimed Scottish writer William Boyd, stars, at various times, Matthew Macfadyen and Jim Broadbent as Logan Mountstuart, a writer who is reflecting back on his varied and troubled life. It’s much like Forrest Gump–with the opposite effect–where this man stumbles through the 20th century encountering both legends and the infamous; from Earnest Hemingway, to the Duke of Windsor, to, well, the Red Army Faction. Unlike Forrest Gump, however, the story feels utterly real; though fictional, nothing reads false in the narrative structure of his life.

The SPK section, however, plays fast and loose with the facts, and is played for comedy. Boyd posits a London branch of the SPK, active in 1977, which hires Logan Moncourt and eventually sends him on a mission to assist the Red Army Faction in Geneva. Before developing a change of heart, Moncourt comes this close to somehow helping Baader, Ensslin, and the other Stammheim prisoners escape prior to the Mogadishu hijacking.

The SPK episode is not really plausible, in any way, not in the least of which because the SPK, in the form that the movie posits, ceased to effectively exist by about 1972. And there was definitely no London office.

But who cares? It’s fun to see names like Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Stammheim, Ulrike Meinhof, and the Socialists Patients Collective, bandied about in a major movie.

And the rest of the movie is terrific. Both Macfadyen and Broadbent are excellent as Mountstuart, and the rest of the cast is top-notch as well. The producers chose an odd way of dealing with the various actors that play the same role at different periods of time. Instead of swapping out the entire cast for the older cast, some actors play against the “older version” of their fellow actors, and vice versa. So, for instance, Mathew MacFadyen, Moncourt has a relationship with Kim Cattrall’s character, and later she reappears in playing against Broadbent’s Moncourt. It might be confusing, but it actually works extremely well.

And when the film comes to a close, you’re hit with a surprising emotional wallop. A really good movie, with an inspired sub-plot.