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

War and Peace, Series Finale, BBC One

War and Peace, Series Finale, BBC One

A clutch of great performances well filmed, but brevity sells Tolstoy short

Pierre (Paul Dano) and Platon Karatayev (Adrian Rawlins) as prisoners on the retreat from Moscow

At the end of Episode Five, Brian Cox's savvy old Field-Marshal Kutuzov gave the order to retreat and abandon Moscow, with hardly a hint of Tolstoy's council of war.

That left the final hour and 20 minutes to wrap up the burning of Russia's sacred capital, Pierre's capture by the French and his best shot at the meaning of life through the peasant Platon Karatayev, Natasha's reconciliation with the wounded Andrei, the French retreat dogged by partisan attacks and then all the other loose ends. A mere 350 pages of novel, in short, not counting Tolstoy's final disquisition on the nature of war as he understood it (which, incidentally, is much more readable than you may have been led to believe).

We can't say we weren't warned. Many of us had been reluctant to touch a series that gave little more than six hours of television time to what is surely the richest novel ever written. Word quickly came through, though, starting with Tom Birchenough's review of Episode One here, that there were many sterling features, not least excellent filming in locations focused mostly upon Lithuania - cinematographer George Steel deserves a gong or two - and a brace of excellent performances alongside the not so good.

Paul Dano in War and PeaceOn the excellent ones so much depended, given that the characters had none of Tolstoy's internal monologues or the time to develop certain slow-burn strands of the book, even if they could still hope to leave us feeling enriched by the end. The revelation was Paul Dano's Count Pierre Bezukhov (pictured above in an early scene). Very well, not the right build, and plump of face alone, but oh so instantly sympathetic on his very first entrance into a St Petersburg society gathering, so capable of registering complex thought processes – and so young.

Actually he's not much younger than Anthony Hopkins was when he unfolded Pierre's spiritual journey at much greater length in the 1972 BBC series, but it felt that way, it felt more right – and how far from Sergei Bondarchuk's inappropriate casting of himself in his epic, strange and sometimes mannered Russian film, thoughtlessly canonised these days. Dano thinks and behaves so much outside the box of a standard characterisation that his Pierre felt real throughout.

Lily James and James Norton in War and PeaceYouth also shone through in Lily James's Natasha (pictured left) – plausible as a 13 year old, an older teenager in love and lust, and a woman made wiser through suffering and grief; you could never say the previous series' Morag Hood shone in the first two dimensions. Though James shared many of the cast members' habits of swallowing the ends of sentences, I believed in her vivacity and intuition at every point. And there were some scenes of pure natural brilliance, like the "oh dear" when Denisov (Thomas Arnold, stalwart) nervously proposes to her and quickly drops the idea given her reaction.

The other outstanding personage of the younger generation, Jessie Buckley as Princess Marya (pictured below), changed even more before our eyes. With a little help from the camerawork, she managed the compression of Marya's growth following the death of her father, the old Bolkonsky played faultlessly on his own terms if a tad too sympathetically by Jim Broadbent; the stylised capturing of her grief in different modes was one of the series' most striking touches.

Jessie Buckley in War and PeaceDid I believe in stiff-upper-lip Prince Andrei? Not so much; while he didn't need to be so very handsome in James Norton's striking personage – that should have been the territory of feckless seducer Anatol, no looker – he could by the same token have done with more gravitas and hauteur in his speech, more depth in his suffering, though Norton grew into the role. But in the relationship between Natasha and Andrei were some of the biggest irritations in Andrew Davies's overpraised adaptation. It couldn't be helped if War and Peace lovers were bound to grumble over what was left out, but why add scenes when time was so short? It's vital that Andrei doesn't talk to Natasha on his first visit to the Rostovs' estate; how sentimental to have them discussing friend-in-common Pierre. And they wouldn't snog in the snow before their engagement. At the other end of the tale, there was absolutely none of the strangeness and transfiguration that makes Andrei's deathbed scenes so astonishing in Tolstoy. We never got into Andrei's head here as we must, whatever the nature of the adaptation.

No single part of the story could hope to accumulate the weight or impact Tolstoy gives to each. The moments of great emotion in the last episode were worth a tear or two thanks to the acting, but then it was quickly over and on to the next scene. To his credit, director Tom Harper handled the battle scenes extremely well without Bondarchuk's gift of 20,000 Red Army extras; I bought Pierre's wandering around in the chaos completely (some commentators please note, it's in the book, as is Napoleon's "glamping") – though to complete the picture of Borodino something of Napoleon's vanity while enjoying lunch on the Shevardino redoubt would have been necessary. None of Tolstoy's bitter sarcasm about the warmonger could hope to emerge; Mathieu Kassovitz remained a cipher.

So it went, a momentary pleasure supplanted by a passing irritation. I don't doubt the capacity of what we did get to engage those previously uninitiated into the wonders of War and Peace, and then there's the hope that thousands will want to go on to read a book which grows and changes with each new acquaintance. But it's obvious from fresh responses to the twists and turns of the plot that viewers would have stayed with a drama at least twice as long. And surely we're all a bit sorry that it's gone.

Dano thinks and behaves so much outside the box of a standard characterisation that his Pierre felt real throughout


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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