Television Reviews : ‘Fortunes of War’

Times Television Critic

“Fortunes of War” is not your typical World War II romance. It’s set not in London or Paris but in Bucharest, Athens and Egypt. And its hero and heroine are not giddy lovers but English newlyweds whose bumpy relationship is often as cool as the war is hot.

Premiering Sunday under the “Masterpiece Theatre” banner (8 p.m. on Channels 50 and 24, 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15), this seven-part BBC adaptation of “The Balkan Trilogy” and “The Levant Trilogy” by Olivia Manning is absolutely delicious viewing--not flawless drama by any means, but TV’s equivalent of the book you can’t put down on a cold, rainy night.

ABC’s “The Winds of War” and its in-the-works sequel, “War and Remembrance,” are champions of panoramic bigness and the obese budget. But no one in TV does World War II like the British.


It’s 1939. The Orient Express is en route to Eastern Europe under war clouds, and on it are Guy and Harriet Pringle (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson), beginning a marriage against an unsettling backdrop of peril and intrigue. Guy is taking his bride to Bucharest, where he is a lecturer at the university, and where the fascist Iron Guard is gaining strength as a forerunner to the Nazis. Later the Pringles will flee to Athens, and then on to Egypt, staying just ahead of the Germans.

The ominous hum of war is ever-present. Yet “Fortunes of War” is just as much about the fortunes of marriage, and sometimes Guy and Emma seem unlikely to survive as a couple. The outgoing Guy’s obsession with his work leads to extended periods of separation from an increasingly sad and cynical Emma, who seeks a life of her own among their extended family of emigres, even contemplating an affair.

There are elements of stagnancy in Alan Plater’s adaptation of this series of semi-autobiographical books by Manning. And Emma’s dispassion--almost iciness at times--can be irritating. But James Cellan Jones directs deftly, with a sense of both fun and tragedy. And the adventure is so grandly staged, and many of the supporting characters are so bizarre and entertaining that there is no turning away.

Even on a warm, dry night.