I was so pleased when "Fortunes of War" was released on DVD! When I first saw this splendid BBC television series, I rushed to the nearest bookstore and bought Olivia Manning's mammoth Balkan and Levant trilogies, which I have since devoured at least three times. Reading, however, in no way lessens, but, instead, enhances one's enjoyment of "Fortunes of War," which preserves the essence of Manning's novels. Visually stunning, the film recreates Bucharest and Athens on the brink of World War II, and then Cairo and Alexandria, as well as Damascus and Jerusalem. One step ahead of the advancing Nazi armies, Guy and Harriet Pringle, the film's central characters, are constantly uprooted and forced to be on the move.
Guy, acted with affable understatement by Kenneth Brannagh, epitomizes the type of academic who constantly puts the wants of his students first. Friend to all the world, Guy Pringle remains totally oblivious to the needs of his newly-married bride. Harriet, played with a dry and subtle irony by Emma Thompson, must cope with setting up house, first, in a city that is about to fall to the juggernaut of the Third Reich; next, in a series of hotel rooms, each more seedy than the last; and finally, sharing digs in Cairo with an odd assortment of British expatriates (and their even odder friends and acquaintances who continually drift in and out of the premises). Guy simply cannot understand that Harriet might be miffed at his heedlessness. For example, after Guy offers her the female title role in Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," she suddenly discovers that he has taken the part away without telling her and has given it to Sophie, a Rumanian professional student and troublemaker who resents Harriet's presence, both in Bucharest and in Guy's life. It is not that Guy Pringle does not love his "little monkey's paws," Harriet; he simply takes her for granted.
Among the outstanding ensemble cast, two performances are memorable: those of Ronald Pickup and Alan Bennett.
Pickup plays the incorrigible Prince Yakimov, a displaced Anglo-Russian aristocrat, long-since fallen on hard times. Pickup's performance is so poignantly nuanced that the viewer is moved from loathing, to laughing--first at him and then with him--and finally to loving him. "Poor Yaki" resembles a spoiled but irrepressibly sweet and helpless child. Not even the much-imposed-upon Harriet can remain angry at a man who appears before her wearing one brown and one black shoe and then explains that he has another pair just like them at home.
Alan Bennett plays the insufferably fussy Cambridge don, Professor Lord Pinkrose, who is always on the verge of giving his renowned lecture on Byron but who, for one reason or another, is always prevented from doing so. Bennett's performance does not make one love Pinkrose (nor should it). Pinkrose, who always darts a baneful glance in Harriet's direction, causes Guy so much trouble that the viewer is tempted to cheer when the Lord Professor finally gets his just desserts. Every film ought to have a character that one loves to hate, and Alan Bennett plays this one to perfection.
The viewer seeking the wartime thrills of dogfighting Messerschmidts, exploding bombs, and action packed battle sequences should rent "Saving Private Ryan" or a John Wayne movie. Even though the conflict in "Fortunes of War" is omnipresent, it is always just over the horizon. It nevertheless exerts a profound impact on the characters, both major and minor. It exerts an equally profound impact on the audience. For the discerning viewer, who appreciates exceptional acting and remarkable characterization, "Fortunes of War" represents the epitome of cinematic storytelling.
For Kenneth Brannagh and Emma Thompson, who acted together for the first time, this film represented "the start of a beautiful friendship," both on film and in real life. Unfortunately, it was not to last, but "Fortunes of War" at least allows us to glimpse the brilliant start, and to be glad that their joint venture in film lasted as long as it did!