Roush Review: Ambitious ‘World on Fire’ Rarely Ignites With Dramatic Surprise
“Every war’s different, until it’s the same,” barks Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) as a pacifist father, shell-shocked since the Somme. Passing out peace pamphlets in Manchester, England, he’s swimming against the tide: With the invasions of Poland and France, Nazi aggression has stirred the winds of warfare in 1939 and 1940 Europe.
The ambitious seven-part Masterpiece series World on Fire covers a lot of ground in its first season, but it still can’t help feeling like every World War II drama you’ve ever seen. With a gaunt Helen Hunt on hand as an exposition machine of an American radio journalist, clinically reciting the latest dire headlines, Fire rarely ignites with dramatic surprise.
Still, it’s likely to satisfy an audience willing to wallow in old-fashioned heroics with the occasional modern flourish — an interracial gay romance, for instance, and a spunky heroine (Julia Brown) whose streak of independence and pride keeps her from being just another war bride. Although when she entertains the troops as a songbird, does her playlist have to be so on the nose (“After You’ve Gone,” “Easy Living,” “All I Do Is Dream of You”)?
As Lois Bennett, working-class daughter of the aforementioned pacifist, Brown is easily Fire‘s greatest asset, especially once she unconventionally spurns her posh lover, international translator Harry Chase (sad-eyed matinee idol Jonah Hauer-King). The women generally come off best in this story, including Harry’s other conquest, Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz), a waitress in Warsaw who stays behind to join the resistance and becomes a remorseless assassin.
Feckless in love and aimless in life, burdened by a cold snob of a mother (Lesley Manville, elevating the cliché), Harry eventually rises to the noble occasion at Dunkirk. Other tense sequences include a daring escape attempt from a hospital in Nazi-occupied Paris and a wrenching subplot about a family in Berlin trying to shelter their epileptic daughter from Hitler’s “mercy killing” program of euthanasia.
By the cliffhanger end of the first season — unlike the recent Sanditon, we’re promised a second — no one emerges unscathed by the horrors, losses and changes they’ve endured. And the Blitz hasn’t even started yet.
World on Fire, Series Premiere, Sunday, April 5, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)