Thursday, 25 June 2020

A Potentially World-Destroying Virus: World on Fire


Zofia Wichlacz in World on Fire.

This review contains spoilers.

Watching the sprawling, emotionally gripping seven-part drama World on Fire on PBS Masterpiece Theatre has increased my frustration with those (mostly) policy-makers who draw analogies between the COVID-19 virus and World War Two. Boris Johnson has fantasized that he is the second coming of Churchill and Trump absurdly sees himself as a wartime president in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, a position that pundit Max Boot hilariously debunks in an acerbic column. In a more serious vein, an historian who has written a book about the politics of mourning wonders why Trump would urge the citizenry to see themselves as “warriors” and return to work even if it means sacrificing themselves, when there has not been even a hint about top-down national (as opposed to personal) mourning, given that, as of this writing, over one-hundred-thousand Americans have succumbed to this virus.

What World on Fire does is to put in perspective how our current crisis, even with an invisible enemy, pales in comparison (provided robust testing, contact tracing and isolation, social distancing and personal hygiene protocols remain in place) with a more lethal form of pestilence, World War Two. I say this with the caveat that the first season takes us only to the fall of France and the epic rescue of British troops from Dunkirk during the spring of 1940. Whereas most war dramas focus on leadership (Darkest Hour about Churchill), a specific episode (Dunkirk) or the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), Fire offers a larger canvas including Manchester, Paris, Berlin and Warsaw. Writer Peter Bowker, reflecting a modern sensibility, explores subjects that are usually passed over or given short shrift through the interlocking stories of ordinary people, their fears, the decisions they make and how the war changes them. What is noticeably missing are the usual nationalistic tropes – the flag waving, the inspirational speeches, the spotlight on masculine prowess – as the characters are primarily driven by personal motives.

In the table-setting first episode, we are first introduced to several storylines that provide a broad canvas. We begin with Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) and Lois (Julia Brown), two young lovers from vastly different backgrounds boldly attempting to disrupt a rally of British fascists. After they are arrested, we are introduced to Lois’s father Douglas (Sean Bean) and Harry’s mother Robina (Lesley Manville). Months later we meet Harry again working as a translator at the British Embassy in Warsaw, living with a Polish family, including Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz), with whom he has become romantically involved, and her brothers. Harry is a friend of Nancy (Helen Hunt), an American radio journalist who warns him to evacuate Poland with his new girl friend before the German army arrives. She is primarily stationed in Berlin, where her neighbours are a German family burdened with a secret. Nancy warns her nephew, Webster (Brian J. Smith), working as a doctor in Paris, to leave before the Germans arrive but he is in a cross-racial gay relationship with Albert (Parker Sawyer), a French-African jazz performer, and disregards her warning.

From this summary of the first episode, it might appear that the content is a lot to absorb and the guns of war have not even started. Some viewers may even wonder whether Fire has too many coincidences or wanders too frequently into melodrama territory. I do not deny that viewers can find evidence for their criticisms but I think there are solid reasons for watching this engaging miniseries. Without sentimentality, Bowker’s writing skillfully weaves the storylines together and, with one exception, they are compelling; he allows for character development, and the ensemble cast delivers nuance in their roles with strong performances against panoramic war scenes and more intimate, searing moments.

Helen Hunt in World on Fire.

Bowker fashions psychological portraits that allow him to start with the individual experience before fanning outward toward the war. His decision to explore character is especially evident in how he etches Douglas and Robina, who do not experience this war directly, but in their different ways still bear scars from the Great War. Douglas is a conscientious objector whose worldview was shaped after he returned from the Somme in 1916, suffering from shell shock. That trauma still flares up during panic attacks when he experiences disabling flashbacks that he believes have prevented him from being a good parent to Lois and his ne’er-do-well son, Tom (Ewan Mitchell). Robina is emotionally distant, a snobbish, embittered person whose defenses gradually break down as circumstances in her life change and as we learn more about the reasons for her anger. Her rightwing politics is leavened by her acerbic sense of humour. Bean and Manville are standouts, bringing depth and complexity to their roles.

In the Polish storyline, the most intense of the series, after a brief, almost idyllic prelude in which Harry experiences life with a Polish family, the Germans invade, wreaking indiscriminate destruction in their wake. Given the change in his personal life, he can’t take the decisive step to write Lois and end that relationship. He persuades Kasia to marry him so that she can return to England with him. She decides to stay instead, sending her younger brother, then enlists in the Polish Resistance. The subsequent scenes featuring her are among the most harrowing in the series. Survival depends more on luck than taking careful precautions; anyone could be arbitrarily chosen in a roundup for execution to avenge the death of a S.S. officer. Kasia undertakes actions that take a psychic toll, which would have been inconceivable to her before the war. The Polish actress, Zofia Wichłacz, is compellingly persuasive as Kasia.

Harry arrives home with Jan (Eryk Biedunkiewicz), whom he introduces to his mother as a rescued Polish refugee who will live with them. In England Jan is lost and withdrawn until he begins a friendship with Douglas and manages to feel less intimidated by a thawing Robina; there is a wonderful scene in which she confronts the boys who have bullied Jan at school.

Harry enlists in the army, acquiring an officer’s commission, but freezes at a crucial moment during a firefight and does not reveal leadership skills until his company reach the beaches of Dunkirk. He insists, over the objections of his own men, that he remain with shell-shocked soldiers not under his command until they are allowed to take seats in the rescue ships, a gesture of courage and compassion providing evidence of his own development as well as an insight into his damaged father.

But it is the women who most impress with their steadiness and resilience. Lois, whose character according to Bowker was based on his own grandmother, demonstrates a resolute quality of independence as she sings jazz tunes for the troops and is determined to raise her child, if need be on her own. The often brassy Nancy, whose character is based on the journalist Clare Hollingworth, serves as a Greek chorus, providing the wider context of the war with her broadcasts and refusing to be intimidated by her German minder. Moreover, in another gripping storyline, Nancy provides valuable support to the German couple desperate to protect their young epileptic daughter from the eugenics policies of the medical authorities who are euthanizing children judged as physically or mentally impaired. At great risk, she attempts to smuggle out of the country an investigative report on the subject. The award-winning Helen Hunt is excellent in this role, exhibiting both strength of character and her vulnerability.

Sean Bean in World on Fire.

When the Germans occupy France after a six-week Blitzkrieg, the fear that the democratic countries could succumb to the efficient Nazi war machine deepens, prompting Robina back in Manchester to declare that England must negotiate with Hitler, a common sentiment at a time when few could conceive of the evil magnitude inherent in the Nazi system. In Paris the virus of anti-Semitism has contaminated the streets. The biracial gay relationship storyline becomes more fraught with danger as Germans occupy Parisian dwellings. Not even aware that he is gay, the Nazis arrest Albert for the crime of being black. At this point it is premature to assess the effectiveness of this subplot. Season one is more about setting up the tension. I think everything depends on how Bowker decides to play it out in the second season.

The same suspension of judgment cannot be made for the episodes featuring Tom, Douglas’s troubled son, who eventually enlists in the navy over the wishes of his pacifist father. The sequences featuring Tom do not contribute to the overall strength of the series in part because his character feels flatlined. A naval battle in the South Atlantic is well choreographed, director Thomas Napper staging scenes of carnage and death, but there is little indication that Tom, who is primarily interested in gambling, has viewed his experience as a test of character except to be sobered by the casualties and show some generosity toward a wounded comrade. When we encounter him next in a war scene, he is on a Dunkirk rescue boat; we now recognize how Bowker has decided to integrate his story but it feels forced. Instead of assisting evacuees, he panics and flees to escape the Nazi strafing and runs along the beach until he is hit; we wonder whether that is the end of his story. Yet he shows up much later as a wounded soldier in a French hospital, attended by Webster. Now the interrelation borders on the risible. Most of the connections and coincidences associated with the intertwining stories, some of which I have not mentioned, make sense and can often be moving but Bowker will need to either drop this storyline or radically rethink Tom’s involvement for season two.

Season one ends with Harry being dropped into Poland as an undercover agent to provide intelligence about the Polish Resistance. He is told by his superior in London that he might not survive, a comment that does not even faze him. This sequence provides a solid bookend for the series. First the character of Harry has evolved; he has grown and has shed the naive illusions and indecisiveness he displayed earlier. He has been chosen for this assignment because of his Eastern European experience and his linguistic skills. The actor Jonah Hauer-King is particularly well-suited for this role because his grandparents were Polish-Jewish refugees before 1939. He is therefore able to deliver the subtitled Polish lines with fluency. As one might expect this sequence is packed with nail-biting tension that culminates with a cliff-hanging conclusion whetting viewers’ appetite for the second season.

In one very real sense, the fear in 1940 that ordinary people did not know how the war would end is similar to our anxiety that we do not know when the virulence of the Coronavirus will dissipate and when we can return to a more normal life. We can take comfort now that we know how things did turn out five years after Dunkirk and it was obviously a huge relief to the people who survived a war in which seventy-five million died. But the world was never the same again. I expect that our life will be irrevocably altered even if an effective treatment is found or a vaccine created that ends this virus. We may be better for it.

World on Fire can be streamed on PBS.org.

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