We watched episode one of “World on Fire,” a big-budget British miniseries about England during World War II, focused, so far as I can see, entirely on regular people, not great generals or statesmen, drawn from all social classes.
Two cast members I recognize: Sean Bean is a shell-shocked World War I veteran, father of a brave young woman and an insolent, obnoxious teen-age boy. It’s a very different role from the last thing we saw him in, the swashbuckling Richard Sharpe adventure stories, set in the Napoleonic Wars 200 years ago, that aired mainly in the 1990s, with two sequels in the mid-2000s. Bean is also famous as Eddard Stark on Game of Thrones, and for a role in the Lord of the Rings movies. We only saw the first LoTR movie and I, at least, was so bored by that that I didn’t bother with any of the others and have nearly forgotten it. This is a very different role than I’ve ever seen Bean in; he’s previously always seemed to be some variation of the dashing warrior, sometimes a hero, sometimes a villain but still basically the same guy. In this he’s a working-class father, psychologically scarred by his own war experience, and now a committed pacifist. He moves stiffly and his clothes are cheap but neat, fitting my image of a certain type of respectable working class British man. And yet in his own way he’s as strong and courageous as Richard Sharpe or Eddard Stark.
The other actor I recognize is Helen Hunt, playing an American journalist in Berlin and Poland as the Nazis begin their march across Europe. The series is set in 1939; HItler is rolling into Poland and still proclaiming that he is only interested in peace; Helen Hunt’s character is a radio journalist, trying to warn the world that Hitler is lying. She’s strong and tough as nails. Also a different role for Hunt than I’ve seen her in; she was a movie and TV star in the 90s, in “Twister,” “As Good as It Gets,” “Mad About You,” and a flawed but interesting movie called “Pay it Forward.” She was gorgeous, and could do sexy and also smart and she was a good actress too. The most recent thing I can remember seeing her in was the HBO miniseries “Empire Falls” in 2005, where she was still recognizably the same actress she was earlier in her career. I loved “Mad About You” and have been bummed that the new miniseries is only available to Spectrum cable subscribers – I’d gladly have paid for it on Apple TV, Amazon Prime or whatever, or even signed up for a new subscription service for the duration, but Spectrum is not available where we are and anyway I will not go through the hassle of switching Internet providers just to watch ONE TV series.
In “World on Fire,” Helen Hunt plays a woman who would have been described at that time as “handsome,” rather than beautiful or sexy. It’s a more limited performance than Bean’s, with a narrower range and more conventional, but Hunt is still very good. Her character is tough, brave and smart, the very ideal of what a journalist of any gender should be.
The series is DARK. I went into it with some vague idea that it might be a period piece like “Downton Abbey,” a fun melodrama that would have some sad moments but that would remain safely inside the TV. But “World on Fire” is, at least so far, a bleak and scary story. The Nazis were some of the biggest monsters history has produced, and in 1939-40 they appeared to be an unstoppable force, rolling effortlessly over Europe and leaving a trail of dead and broken bodies behind them. It must have been a terrifying time to be alive, and the series captures that perfectly.
Although it also occurs to me that the Nazis' sin was that they treated Europe the way that Europe and America treated Africa and Asia. So maybe the Nazis were not so uniquea after all.
I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this one.