We all know of Tolstoy’s infamous thousand page novel; not many of us have read it, but we might consider using it as a door stop on the off chance we happen to have a copy in our possession. The good old folks at the BBC have decided to grace our Sunday night television guides with their adaptation of the Tolstoy classic, and three weeks into the six-part series, this is the story so far.
To start with, quite frankly, it was all a bit silly. Supposedly about the Russian revolution, it began more Downton Abbey meets very soft porn, with sprinkles of choreographed debauchery and Russian drum beats. It’s all very English, you know, despite it being set in Russia, with Lady Rose (sorry, Natasha Rostov, played by English rose Lily James) and her heaving bosom as an overly excitable heroine stood on the palace steps fawning over boys in uniform. She blushes in all the right places and smiles innocently.
The first episode opened fairly promisingly, with nondescript misty hills and woodland, and the true historical events written out on screen. This is the BBC after all, and if we’re going to do history then we’re going to do it right. As the opening credits role, we have Napoleon on his white horse and stunning shots of St. Petersburg all backed by some interesting drum beats and operatic singing; we do need reminding that we are in Tsarist Russia, not BBC does Pride and Prejudice England. We’re clearly aiming for the seriousness of it all here and yet it comes off forced. We are greeted with the fresh face of Paul Dano, the American actor known for films such as Little Miss Sunshine and 12 Years a Slave, as Pierre Bezukhov, and some exposition and name dropping of Anna Pavlovna. They take the chance to say her full name at any given opportunity because the audience might actually recognise it.
Episode one introduces the formidable British actor Jim Broadbent, played by Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, whose house is the setting for some of the better scenes of the episodes. Prince Andrei, James Norton, shows little love and throws his pregnant wife aside in a heart wrenching few seconds that could have easily been drawn out, immediately juxtaposed by the emotive farewells of the Rostov household. There are a lot of characters in War and Peace, and only by the end of episode three do we feel we have a grasp of a select few. If you have little to none knowledge of the book, then you might find yourself sitting with IMDB and Wikipedia in front of you trying to keep track of characters and their connections.
The second installment of the series is really when everything begins to come together; whether the first episode was simply a teaser for what is yet to come, the interchangeable pace, anecdotal scenes and character building form to demonstrate BBC drama at its best. The episode leads with the marriage of Pierre and the beautiful but unpleasant Helene, brilliantly performed by Tuppence Middleton. Married life does not have a happy start however, with Helene happily declaring “I am not really awfully good at coping with peasants”, before it is revealed she has had intimate relations with Pierre’s dear friend, the dangerous Dolokhov. On the battlefield, Prince Andrei is left for dead after a particularly bloody clash with Napoleon’s army, but makes it home in time to make amends with his wife before she dies in childbirth. There is some more light-hearted humour, found in the money-grabbing Kuragin men being blighted by the ‘plain’ Marya Volkonskaya, whose performance was anything but. At the end of the episode we are still hoping that name badges will make an appearance, but eagerly anticipating what is to come.
Every TV series should have a Cinderella moment. Enter the equivalent in episode three of War and Peace, the Tsar’s ball. Natasha, the daughter of Count Rostov (who we discover hasn’t been so careful with his finances), is swept off her feet by the recently widowed Prince Andrei, who later declares to Pierre how he has never been so delightfully happy – all very lovely. Pierre seems to be solving his own problems by finding spiritual guidance by the Freemasons, after almost murdering Dolokhov in an organised duel. The insistence for Russian singing continues in this episode, with both Dolokhov and Natasha uncomfortably bursting into song on a few separate occasions; it makes the seamless performances from both actors seem staged, and is an aspect hopefully eluded in the remainder of the series.
The first three episodes are only the building block for the rest of the BBC’s latest mini-series, one that will hopefully continue to provide enough excitement to a Sunday night. As we continue to follow the lives and relations of Pierre, Natasha, Andrei and the rest of the ensemble through the breathtaking landscape of revolutionary era Russia, it will be interesting to observe how the events will pan out in relation to the Tolstoy classic.
Nicole Stewart-Rushworth and Emma Bowden
Image: Evening Standard.