wed 25/04/2018

War and Peace, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

War and Peace, BBC One

War and Peace, BBC One

Promising opening to Andrew Davies's go at Tolstoy's long one

Tolstoy's gilded youth: Pierre (Paul Dano), Natasha (Lily James), Andrei (James Norton)BBC/Mitch Jenkins/Kaia Zak

So, Andrew Davies has bitten off the big one. It may have come as a surprise to some that the master of adapting the British classics for television hadn’t read Tolstoy’s classic-to-end-all-classics until the BBC mooted the idea of a new screen version, but this first episode (of six) boded very well all the same.

It was Davies adeptly laying out the domestic ground (battlefields, too), and introducing the characters. For anyone intimidated by the length of the original novel – not to mention the heavy accretions of philosophy and history that Tolstoy loaded onto it – the surprise may have been quite how uncomplicated the dynastic dynamics of the main players looked. Compared with the profusion of plots and associated strands that have crowded Davies’s ongoing Mr Selfridge, War and Peace so far seems almost straightforward.

Pierre is the most capacious character of the story - and the closest to Tolstoy himself

The three young protagonists who grace the idyllically preened promo material (main picture) are indeed the centre of Tolstoy’s story, though the complexities of two of them – Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky – are yet to become apparent. Lily James as Natasha may have looked older than her teenage years here, but she’s still to blossom beyond the close family environment that surrounded her, while James Norton as dashing Prince Andrei remained emotionally rather one-dimensional in his unattractive disdain for his pregnant wife and almost simplistic desire to get on with military heroics.

Which latched our attention firmly to Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano), recently returned from abroad to make an apprehensive entry into St Petersburg society (pictured below), and reunited in the process with his old friend Andrei. Pierre is the most capacious character of the story – and the closest to Tolstoy himself – and Dano plays him with a gaucheness that defined itself slowly. His illegitimacy in itself didn’t set him apart from this aristocratic world – one of the nice touches of the episode was the volte face which that milieu performed the moment his inheritance was confirmed – but it was as if he almost made an effort not to belong, extolling the heroism of Napoleon in the abstract even as his hero waged war with Russia and her allies. He hardly seemed to have bothered even to dress for the occasion.Dano captured that outsider quality well, coming to feel at home only in the natural intimacy of the Rostov household in Moscow. Pierre was much more acted upon here, than acting. The last to respond in the rather hammy, hold-onto-the-will deathbed scene which saw his position maintained only with feisty support from other quarters, he then allowed himself – and his fortune – to be wrapped around the delectable but icy little finger of Helene Kuragina (Tuppence Middleton).

If that left you thinking that Dano’s Pierre was not only a bit too nice, but even a bit wet, well he was. Davies’s delight in character was firmly with the devious elements of his story, most of all the scheming of Stephen Rea’s Prince Kuragin (pictured below), who was plotting from the very start with the hostess of the first scene (Gillian Anderson, costumed with a rather more modern glamour than her guests?). We may know Davies as screenwriter best from his celebrated Jane Austen, but the atmosphere here was more properly Victorian, hinting even at Wilkie Collins (like Dickens, a favourite of Tolstoy).

The finesse with which père et fille Kuragin manipulated the hapless Pierre was a triumphant reversal of gender expectations, a portrait of marriage as a trap every bit rivalling Henry James’s later Portrait of a Lady. Tuppence Middleton’s face as Helene had cunning written all over it, just as her dashing brother Anatole (Callum Turner) had cad inscribed on his, to a degree that couldn't help but frustrate even his father’s manipulative intentions with regard to the Bolkonsky household. If Tolstoy’s decent characters indeed look a bit low on conviction so far, there’s no doubting the passionate intensity of his villains.

Brother and sister Kuragin, of course, have attracted the advance publicity for this War and Peace, with Davies amplifying (in one scene so far) a suggestion of incest from Tolstoy’s novel into something rather (but really not very much) more explicit: the whole hullabaloo looks far more engineered to make a headline or two. The point, simple enough, is that these siblings operate with a shared slipperiness that’s all the more lethal for their physical beauty, while there’s no doubt, as we witness Rea’s manipulations, as to where their gene pool came from.

The risk of making things more explicit than they need to be – for the sake, presumably, of contemporary appeal? – is there, though. There’s a scene in the second episode that has the almost protean Dolokhov (Tom Burke) rogering Helene in flagrante over the dining-table that would have been more at home in Blackadder. It seemed out of place here against the grander sense of the whole canvas of human life that Tolstoy will duly reveal to us. Davies and his director Tom Harper really have assembled a glorious cast, never more so than in the fathers of the households, Jim Broadbent (pictured left) as the remote old Prince Bolkonsky – a character out of the 18th century if ever there was one – and his counterpart chez Rostov, that great enjoyer of life Count Ilya (Adrian Edmondson).

We may have seen less of him, but Brian Cox as the acerbic General Kutuzov, the Russian commander who prefers to retreat tactically rather than engage in battle, was up there with the best of them, too. The grandest battle scenes Borodino, most of all come later, but the end of this opener had an impressively nifty cavalry charge from which the comely Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden) ended up retreating in ignominious injury.

The best is yet to come with the social set-pieces too, prime among them the celebrated ball scene. That’s something to be looked forward to, not least for the fact that this production (BBC Wales, in collaboration with the Weinstein Company, a combination you don't come across every day) was filmed partly on original Russian locations, with St Petersburg standing in for itself in some exteriors, while the Catherine Palace outside that city will provide the glittering mirrors for the dance spectacular. (The rest of the action, interiors and exteriors alike, was shot in Lithuania, and it looks, costumes included, very nice indeed.) So far this War and Peace is looking like a rather winning proposition.

The surprise may have been quite how uncomplicated the dynastic dynamics of the main players looked

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Comments

Too many posh faces in the frame. Where were the open auditions held? Eton?

Apart from the fact that I wouldn't be too sure of identifying 'posh faces', note that Tolstoy focuses on the upper echelons of Moscow and Petersburg society.

Tom's review gives me courage to watch this. The six-episode distillation seemed impossible - especially compared with Timberlake Wertenbaker's excellent all-day Radio 4 adaptation this time last year, let alone Bondarchuk and the previous BBC demi-success - and it was discouraging to read that Davies hadn't read the novel before the commission, unlike Wertenbaker, who'd had an ongoing dialogue with this greatest of books, as in my opinion an adapter should. Well, let's see.

I loved this yet couldn't make it past the first installment of the Radio 4 all day event last January 1st. And I came to it expecting to be unimpressed, but the very things that put me off Timberlake Wertenbaker's self-conscious adaptation (the faux naivety in the children's voices prompting their parents huge long flashbacks), were absent here and it was a joy to watch. I hope the BBC, or perhaps Weinstein, will screen all six hours in one sitting. I'd be there for sure.

Perhaps coming to the novel fresh and treating it as a job of work helped Davies to fillet it it to its key elements. I haven't read the novel either, but am seeing a fantastic piece of television - unlike the thousands of Tolstoy fans suddenly coming out of the woodwork who seem to be greeting it with universal howls of anguish.

Let's be clear, War and Peace shouldn't need filleting and all its elements are key, though better given the six-episode span to stick to some things and jettison others. It sounds like too much is being crammed in. Why the BBC couldn't have come closer to 'the complete' with, say, 30 half hour episodes along the lines of the heyday Bleak House, I can't understand, other than budgetary restraints (but everything and everyone was assembled, they could have gone the extra hundred miles). The public would have gone with it. Still unsure whether to brave it or not: so many conflicting reports from folk I trust.

Totally agree that more would have been better, but I can only judge what's in front of me, and knowing very little of the book, I'm enjoying it mightily...

I have enjoyed watching the latest BBC version of War and Peace. The scenery and houses are magnificent and care has been taken with the interiors but then seems accuracy has flown out the window with costuming. Yet again the design and accuracy is poor, especially of women’s dresses. There are some really odd looking dresses which are more 21st century than early 19th century, for instance some of those worn by Helena, Pierre’s wife. Why there is exaggeration in style and colour when the actor can well portray the character I don’t know. The cut and choice of fabrics in some of the day dresses is also odd with Russian patterned fabrics, presumably to make them look more Russian. It seems that it is pandering to modern taste rather than let the period speak for itself. Downton Abbey more or less gets it right then why can’t costume designers of historical dramas do the same for those set in the early 19th century and before as they did once in the mid-1990s, for example BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. Then there is the military aspect of the mini-series. Starting with uniform, the wrong pattern Russian uniform is being worn in 1805, which might be forgivable as the different cut in women’s dress between 1805 and 1809, but to show Nikolai Rostov constantly wearing his pelisse on the wrong shoulder in the first three episodes, and in case worn with one arm in the sleeve on the wrong side is disgraceful. It seems the production did not have a military advisor. Another issue is the portrayal of the Battle of Austerlitz which shows up the lack of knowledge of Napoleonic warfare with it descending into a mix of units and individuals, and then where were the Austrians. It is also known as the battle of the Three Emperors. There is also a proliferation of ground explosions when cannon fired solid round shot. With the advent of CGI a far superior re-creation could have been made. The screen play is a good precis of the novel so it is a pity more effort could not have been put into these aspects of the drama in what could have been a notable BBC classic.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters