Photograph: BBC
Rating 8.5
Streamer BBC iPlayer
Seasons 1
Episodes 6 x 60 mins

Reading the core info about this series, we imagine you’re going “as much as I may love his work, I’m just not sure I can sit through six hours of telly about Ernest Hemingway.” And you know what, we thought exactly the same. But yet here we are, giving it a solid score and trying to persuade you to watch it. You really ought to, too.

The success of this series is thanks in part to the complexities of Ernest Hemingway’s personal history, but also to the famed documentary maker Ken Burns, who has teamed up with his long-time collaborator, Lynn Novick, to make the most of this ample material. People who have watched any of Burns’s previous documentaries will recognise his style, covering shots of black and white photographs with the narration of Peter Coyote, creating a sophisticated and scholarly atmosphere that makes you feel like a fund of one-liners on one of the C20’s literary greats will enter your brain via TV osmosis whilst watching his series.

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Over the six episodes, we journey through Hemingway’s life in chronological order, painting an intimate portrait of his life and unpicking the mysteries that surround his troubled character, asking whether it was true or just to brand him as a misogynistic booze hound, as well as a literary legend. To help him do so, Burns has brought in some hugely celebrated actors, including Jeff Daniels, Meryl Streep, and Patricia Clarkson, to give readings from his work, as well as showcasing interviews from writers like Edna O’Brien and Tobias Wolff.

This a revealing study on the author’s life, covering Hemingway’s time in the war, working for the Red Cross in Italy before a bomb launched over 200 pieces of shrapnel into his leg. We learn how he refused treatment until more severe injuries were dealt with, and how the fragments were removed without anesthetic. And then on to his first marriage to Hadley Richardson, and their years mingling within the art scene of Paris’ Left Bank.

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The series acknowledges Hemingway as a tragic kind of figure, exploring his complicated nature without letting him off for his more questionable actions. It strips away that macho reputation and peeks at the real man behind the persona. It’s this clear-eyed view that makes the documentary so thorough and enlightening, and fans of Hemingway’s writing are sure to devour its six episodes.

Hemingway has had great reviews from the critics, with Chris Bennion of The Telegraph saying “The myth is stripped away, the pedestal has the legs sawn off and Burns and Novick present to us Hemingway the man, warts and all.” A four star review also comes from The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson, who says “The biographical work is skilfully done, and with great generosity to all participants in the myth…the analysis is a real treat.” And The Times’s James Jackson reckons “this was very much in the land of American prestige documentaries — very serious, slightly precious.”

First shown June 2021. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.

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