Hemingway (4 stars)


Detailed and non-judgmental exploration of the myths and miseries of Ernest Hemingway

Almost the chiselled template for unabashed machismo, Ernest Hemingway loved to hunt big game, was obsessed with bullfighting, penned books about solid chaps, boozed his peers under every last table, and got married four times. But filmmaking duo Ken Burns and Lynn Novick spend a large chunk of their latest epic documentary series (following on from previous works on the histories of jazz, Prohibition, baseball, and the Vietnam War) busting some of the myths that immediately enter your head upon hearing the name 'Hemingway'.

Sure, you should definitely balk at the image of this author, war correspondent and party animal grinning over the corpse of a gunned-down lion, but a less virile portrait of the man comes through loud and clear across six episodes. Narrated with great urgency by Peter Coyote (the ET/Jagged Edge actor fully deserves all those voiceover gigs he's secured down the years but boy, does he sound like Henry Fonda) while Jeff Daniels becomes Hemingway for the novel or letter-reading segments, it particularly references the relationship he had with his mother.

Initially all was fine, with Ernest being encouraged to dress exactly the same his slightly older sister Marcelline and taking his artistic bent from his musician mum, but eventually he grew to loathe her. The blame was placed firmly at her door for his doctor father's periods of depression and suicidal impulses that were finally acted upon. And even though he was equally as castigating about his dad's 'cowardice' after his father shot himself when Ernest was 29, his mother continued to bear the brunt of her son's wrath.

While the often notorious biography keeps many people enrapt with the Hemingway legend, due prominence is given here to the novels and short stories that truly made his name. That staggering bibliography is analysed in depth, from In Our Time through to A Farewell To Arms and on to The Old Man And The Sea (even if long-time admirer Edna O'Brien thinks his swansong stinks), Burns and Novick keep their eyes on their subject's literary prizes, while recognising that the Hemingway tragedy tells its own remarkable story.

BBC Four, Tuesday 29 June, 9pm.