This BBC mini-series stars Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, and in fact is where they met. It’s based on a series of novels by British writer Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, which are part of the Guardian newspaper’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. [Actually, by my count, more like 1070.)
The 7-episode series opens with newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle (Branagh and Thompson) on a train to Bucharest, Rumania. Guy is an English teacher there – his employer seems to be a British agency similar to the USIA – and Harriet has met and married him during his summer vacation in England. Guy has been chatting in German with a fellow passenger. At a border crossing the other man discovers that his pocket has been picked and he has no identification and no money. As the German-speaker is hustled away, Guy follows and gives him a few pounds – an ineffectual but kindly-meant gesture which is all too typical of his character.
As Guy and Harriet arrive in Bucharest, the Nazis have invaded Poland and Britain has declared war on Germany. Life becomes a strange mixture of the everyday joys and concerns of two young people, and the anxiety of living in a foreign country which is not only poised for invasion by either Germany or the Soviet Union, but also has internal struggles. In fact, soon the Prime Minister is assassinated by the home-grown Fascists, the Iron Guards. Harriet meets a circle of Guy’s friends and acquaintances – Dobson, the head of the British legation; Sophie, the Rumanian girl who may be a rival; Prince Yakimov, an impecunious Russian prince with a British passport who talks like Bertie Wooster; and more.
During the course of the series, Guy and Harriet manage to stay one jump ahead of the Nazis, leaving first for Athens, then Cairo, and Harriet spends some time in Damascus. The series, which was meant to be the BBC’s answer to such ITV hits as Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, was shot on location (although the then Yugoslavia stood in for Rumania) and cost $12 million to make in 1987. It is visually stunning with great costumes (but realistic – Thompson doesn’t have a new dress each time she appears), careful period detail, and some wonderful atmospheric scenes such as an Egyptian funeral and an Orthodox Easter service. As one expects from British TV, the acting is first rate. Although there are many shocking and harrowing scenes, there is humor as well – especially in Alan Bennett’s turn as 'Professor Lord Pinkrose’ futilely attempting to give his lecture on Byron. I really liked the music, too. And, ever since I read my first Helen MacInnes novel, I’ve been a sucker for tales of “romance in a danger zone.”
I’m looking forward to reading the books now, and seeing how they differ. But if you’re not up to reading a six-volume duo of trilogies, you might just enjoy the 407 minutes of this adaptation.