“The things that happen to us make us different people. It’s part of the story of our life,” author, adventurer and lover Logan Mountstuart explains at the outset of “Any Human Heart,” an offbeat three-part “Masterpiece” production that’s interesting, but never wholly satisfying. Casting three actors as the central character at different stages of his eventful life, Mountstuart becomes the audience’s surrogate on a sporadically surreal trip through the 20th century, punctuated by historical figures like Hemingway, Ian Fleming, and Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson. If the ultimate message is life’s precious, sorry, but I’d like the 4½ hours spent watching it back.
Adapted by William Boyd from his novel — which derives its title from Henry James’ line, “Never say you know the last word about any human heart” — the production
begins with Mountstuart as a youth (played by Sam Claflin) in the 1920s, losing his virginity, traveling to Paris and hanging out with the likes of Ernest Hemingway (Julian Ovenden).
An older Mountstuart (“Little Dorrit’s” Matthew Macfadyen) enters into an ill-advised marriage, then begins an affair and falls in love with Freya (Hayley Atwell), only to have WWII intervene.
Joining naval intelligence, he becomes reluctantly drawn into the “curious, unreal world” of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Tom Hollander, Gillian Anderson), played as sneering fops; gets thrown into prison; and after the war engages in various romances, one involving his friend’s wife (Kim Cattrall).
Finally, Mountstuart appears in his dotage, though the older version (Jim Broadbent) appears throughout, reminiscing as he leafs through grainy photographs and letters. As much fun as Broadbent is to watch, the final chapter seems to be marking time — including a tedious interlude in which the elderly Mountstuart becomes involved with a radical antigovernment group — until his human heart succumbs to the inevitable.
As handsome as the production is, the nature of Boyd’s novel makes the miniseries episodic, and the tone of those encounters tends to be highly uneven. While experiencing abundant tragedy in his life, the protagonist’s vulnerability doesn’t translate very well in carrying the story, even with such a stalwart trio of actors playing him. “Your past never leaves you,” the elder Mountstuart muses in his narration.
In much the same way, “Masterpiece’s” past highlights — including the splendid “Downton Abbey,” which just aired — sets the bar considerably higher than “Any Human Heart,” which proves less, ultimately, than the sum of its beats.