I should have reviewed BBC One’s expensive-looking and beautifully cast series of Leo Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace last week, but, if I’m honest, I needed more time to make up my mind about how I felt towards it. Episode one left me confused, and not just in terms of putting names to faces –I’m still struggling with that– but I wasn’t sure if it was actually good or if I just really wanted to think it was good. Luckily episode two decided me, and I can safely assure you that Andrew Davies’ adaptation for television is a little bit epic.
I’ve never read War and Peace, I haven’t even attempted it; the size of it frightens me more than my inability to pronounce the Russian names. Davies has condensed Tolstoy’s tome with the knowledge that most of his audience will not have read it, and, even if they have, they won’t remember half of it. Essentially, the plot revolves around five aristocratic Russian families (the Bezukovs, the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, the Dubretskoys, and the Kuragins) whose way of life is impacted greatly by Russia’s involvement in the Napoleonic wars early in the nineteenth century. Count Pierre Bezukov, a young, socially inept illegitimate son of the wealthiest man in Russia, played by American actor Paul Dano, is the character upon whom the action mainly focuses. So far we’ve seen him come into his wealth despite his illegitimate status, only to be manipulated by pretty much everyone surrounding him –including his wife and her father, Prince Kuragin (Stephen Rea). Amidst the grand rooms, opulent dinners and simply gorgeous costumes lies disenchantment, not only from Count Bezukov, but his friend Prince Bolkonsky (James Norton) who joins the Russian army to get away from his clingy wife and eccentric father (a superb Jim Broadbent). Elsewhere, Lily James charms as Natasha Rostova, a young, pretty, and accomplished girl who promises to lend romance to the series. While that doesn’t sound overly complicated, that’s just the bare bones of the plot -there’s more to it than that so good luck keeping up with all the scheming going on.
Meaty roles and casting aside, the series is beautifully shot, particularly the battle scenes which usually bore me. The contrast between the rich, saturated, urban colours of the interior scenes, and the ethereal, pallid and natural colours of the battlefield works so well, leeching the actors’ faces of colour, and driving home the tragedy of war, particularly when accompanied by its haunting score. Although the dialogue is, at times, forced (perhaps necessitated by the length of the novel –some things just can’t be left to subtlety) it is also quick and occasionally pithy. Nevertheless, there is still something distinctly English about this series (Davies can add as many Russian Orthodox weddings as he likes, I don’t think it can be shaken off), and I don’t mean just the actors or the dialogue.
Maybe it will wane as the series goes on, and I hope it does, but it hasn’t detracted anything from the epic scale of this lavish adaptation. I’ll certainly be tuning in again on Sunday at 9pm.