Matthew MacFadyen plays the adult Logan Mountstuart and Hayley Atwell… (Joss Barratt / PBS )
"Any Human Heart," which premieres Sunday on PBS' "Masterpiece Classic," is, essentially, a very slow, subtle and British version of "Forrest Gump." Based on William Boyd's 2002 novel "Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart," the miniseries follows the life of a literary everyman from his college days to his death at 86, during which he experiences much of the 20th century and morphs from ambitious student-writer (when he is played by Sam Claflin) to floundering middle-age (Matthew Macfadyen) to sadder but wiser old age (Jim Broadbent).
Like "Forrest Gump," his tale is told with a blend of fictitious and historical characters: Mountstuart rubs elbows with Ernest Hemingway in Paris and Joan Miró in Barcelona, spends time with the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson before and after the abdication and is drawn into British intelligence during World War II by Ian Fleming. Mountstuart has a personal mantra to explain the vagaries of fortune — life is merely the sum of a person's luck, good and bad. Which is as close as one can get to "My mama always said, life is like a box of chocolates" and still remain a self-respecting, Oxford-educated Brit.
But Mountstuart is not the tabula rasa Forrest was; his steadfast belief in luck often seems more of a rationalization than an explanation. "Any Human Heart" is told in flashback, with Broadbent's Mountstuart sifting through the detritus of his life. And from the beginning, when we meet him as a sex-obsessed student racing to lose his virginity and thereby win a bet, Mountstuart is talented, ambitious and self-aware to the point of narcissism.
He finally achieves his goal with Tess, who happens to be his close friend Peter's (Samuel West) paramour — something which he confesses only to another close friend, Ben (played in early days by James Musgrave and later by Ed Stoppard), thus setting in motion a pattern of competition and concealment that will follow the three throughout their lives. Peter marries Tess (Holliday Grainger), Ben moves to Paris to become an art dealer while Mountstuart takes up with a young socialist and writes a novel called "The Girl Factory," which becomes a bestseller.
Success disgusts his lover, however, and in an attempt to win her back Mountstuart writes the more literary "The Cosmopolitans," which bombs. In fury, he marries an aristocrat, Claflin's youthful passion giving way to Macfadyen's more silent and self-satisfied suffering. While married, he meets the real love of his life, Freya (Hayley Atwell), and his story begins in earnest, thrusting him into war and tragedy.
It is a long journey and at times a slow one, but with more than a few delightful oases. For fans of "The Kings Speech" who wonder what became of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, there is the always-entertaining Tom Hollander and a gorgeously witchy Gillian Anderson to show you (it's not pretty). Atwell's Freya is as convincing a True Love as ever there was, and Kim Cattrall is a revelation as Sam's third wife, Gloria, who is also lover to both Macfadyen's and Broadbent's Mountstuart.
It is refreshing to see life's journey taken by such a non-dramatically flawed man, but Mountstuart's own detachment makes it difficult to rouse more than an intellectual interest in his process until Broadbent takes over. With his oft-dancing eyes set to lucid gleam, Broadbent infuses even Mountstuart's sorrow with an underlying joy that is lovely to watch.
A man is not one man but many, we are told repeatedly throughout "Any Human Heart," which is an arguable point. But it is reassuring to see that the final version can be so much larger than the considerable sum of its parts.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-S (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for sex)