There’s no shortage of World War II movies out there that capture this important moment in global history, from Charlie Chaplin satirizing Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) to 2019’s dramatic Midway, an action-packed portrayal of that notorious battle. Even as we come up on the 75th anniversary of the end of the War, we’re still seeing a number of films released every year that are based on this world-altering event and the lives of those who lived through it.
The 2020 film season is following that trajectory so far, with two new World War II films already announced for the year — and one new show: the BBC's World on Fire. The show was first broadcast on BBC One in 2019, and the WGBH Drama Club was delighted to see that it would be joining MASTERPIECE’s lineup for spring 2020.
Incisive, creative and unique, World on Fire is a superior offering in this popular genre. Taking a look at the oft-overlooked personalities entangled in the European theater, it expands on the well-worn tracks covered by the multitude of media that came before it. The story follows an array of inspiring and interesting characters: Harry, a war-time translator who gets shipped off to battle as an officer; Lois, a single, pregnant woman determined to make her own way; Nancy, an American reporter working in Berlin; Douglas, a Pacifist whose son chooses to enlist; Kasia, a Polish resistance fighter, who’s family is torn apart by the Nazis; Webster, a queer doctor, and his lover, Albert, a jazz musician and man of color, who are both working in Paris at the time of the occupation.
At first glance, it may seem like an overabundance of storylines to keep track of. But, impressively, the tales all weave together in exquisite fashion, under the careful hand of series creator Peter Bowker (Monroe, Occupation). He guides the storyline across Europe, through raging battles, family drama, and quiet moments of romance and betrayal. Through careful juxtaposition and thrilling war action sequences, Bowker defines his characters through their responses to the war and to each other. It’s an impressive study in character development and relationship building.
However, it’s not just Bowker’s clever pen that brings these people to life. The cast that fills these rolls is equally brilliant, from its well-known faces — Helen Hunt, Sean Bean — to the up-and coming performers that round out the cast, like Julia Brown and Parker Sawyers. Each actor brings a nuanced personality to their role, imbuing the characters with emotion, depth and, often, weighty backstory. The direction is just as gracefully done, with a final product of flawlessly depicted love, hate, and everything in between.
If you’d like to read more about the cast, check out our article here.
Rounding out World on Fire are the technical aspects of the show, which are just as delicately executed as the editorial and performative side. The cinematography — split between Søren Bay, Suzie Lavelle, Mika Orasmaa and John de Borman — vacillates between careful intimacy and thrilling battle scenes. Two notable elements of the series are the costuming and set décor, both which appear to be assiduously researched and executed. The costuming comes from Nic Ede, known for his work in Flyboys, Hysteria and Indian Summers, and set decoration was led by Adrian Anscombe and Jen Saguaro, both who are coming off of Doctor Who.
If there is to be one critique of the series, it is that it’s a bit slow starting out. The first episode hits a few speed bumps in dialogue and pacing, creating a better-than-average installment of serial television. But as the show continues, it makes up for the snags of episode one, sending the characters and their storylines on their inevitable journey toward the end of the war.
A remarkable piece of television, this series is a can’t miss. And even better? The BBC is already hard at work on Season Two. So be sure the catch World on Fire today on WGBH Passport.