PBS drama follows British couple through war-torn society of '40s. Series brings needed luster to `Masterpiece Theatre'

Masterpiece Theatre: Fortunes of War PBS, Sundays through Feb. 28, 9-10 p.m., check local listings. Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Ronald Pickup, and Rupert Graves. Host: Alistair Cooke. Writer: Alan Plater, based on Olive Manning's ``The Balkan Trilogy'' and ``The Levant Trilogy.'' Director: James Cellan Jones. ``Fortunes of War'' represents BBC, ``Masterpiece Theatre,'' and British sensibilities at their most peculiarly fascinating.

It's the story of World War II as seen through the eyes of a peripatetic English couple who travel to Romania, Greece, and Egypt in search of themselves as individuals and as a couple. Somewhere in the midst of all the ancient civilizations and modern love affairs, they also seem to be searching for a merrie olde England that is beginning to exist only in expatriate societies.

``Fortunes of War'' starts in 1939 on the Orient Express, en route to Romania, and ends in 1942 atop a pyramid in Egypt. In between there are breathtaking locations, such as the Parthenon and the temples of Luxor. Places are as important as people in this series, which is based on six classic ``potboiler'' novels by Olive Manning, books that have achieved cult status in some circles.

The hero and heroine of this series are most impressive because they are so Britishly human. Their romantic personae are studded with idiosyncratic imperfections. Guy, a university lecturer, is so involved in comparatively trivial activities, such as an expatriate production of ``Troilus and Cressida,'' that he doesn't seem to realize Bucharest is falling to the Iron Guard. He is so involved in the fate of the oppressed peoples of the world that he fails to notice that his neglected wife, Harriet, feels oppressed, too. As well as bored, impatient, and ready to search elsewhere for romance.

In the midst of a series of disasters, the characters in ``Fortunes of War'' find it hard to believe that the events are really happening, just as the world found difficult to accept the state of affairs in 1940.

Kenneth Branagh as Guy and Emma Thompson as Harriet play antiheroes to perfection, skillfully acting out their unheroic destinies against ancient civilizations that are falling apart rapidly. They connect and disconnect, love and hate, live through the agonies and intimacies of marriage, and they manage to survive despite deep misunderstandings and third-party interference. In short, they manage to play out on every level the British upper-class version of marriage in the war-torn society of the '40s.

``Fortunes of War'' succeeds to a great extent because of its superb cinematography. One gets a vivid feeling of time and place, even though for the shooting, Yugoslavia was substituted for Romania because of political problems in making the arrangements.

James Cellan Jones, noted for his direction of ``The Forsyte Saga,'' has managed to pilot ``Fortunes'' expertly through perilous waters, shrewdly balancing both intense and pale personal relationships against the incongruously impersonal but exotic backgrounds. Toward the end of the series, one begins to notice that the adapter felt the urge to compress rapidly, as the story line starts speeding by like a runaway train.

But despite gaps in plot, this series is a welcome newcomer in what has been a rather lackluster year for ``Masterpiece Theatre.'' It is a colorful travelogue through human emotions as well as exotic places. It presents an insightful picture of 1940s expatriates adrift in a crumbling world. ``Fortunes of War'' is about love, marriage, boredom, and misogyny. But it is also about a nation of people who refused to run away ... from anything.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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