Leo Tolstoy’s novel is widely acclaimed as one of the best pieces of literature ever written. That being said it has been adapted to the small screen several times and each time it is attempted many fans of the written version hold their collective breaths waiting to see what the end product will be. The pressure is on when you decide to take on such a beloved piece of literature. It deserves to be handled right and for the most part this BBC miniseries does just that.
At its heart the expansive story is one of love, hope, greed, and several other emotions that comprise human make-up with the backdrop of the political and societal machinations of Russia. All involved are searching for their ultimate purpose in life. Screenwriter Andrew Davies has taken on the huge chore of adapting the lengthy novel for a miniseries. What he was wise to do is to allow the original story enough space to weave its magical story across the six episodes. Davies also is skilled enough to trim where demanded by the time constraints without damaging the story. It is certainly more digestible than the huge novel and allows those who have not read it the chance to fall in love with Tolstoy’s wonder.
French general Napoleon has set his sights on Russia. War has begun between the two great nations. This puts pressure on many lives of young and older in Russia. Some of these lives are going to change for good. One such life is that of Pierre Bezukhov (Pierre Dano – Little Miss Sunshine, Looper), a young man who is the illegitimate son of a wealthy man. He is largely a man lost in life, not sure what to do and existing on the fringes of society in St. Petersburg. He is close friends with Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton – An Education, Belle). He is also unhappy with his life and actually looks towards war as an escape. Rounding out the trio is young, hopeful and beautiful Natasha Rostova (Lily James – Cinderella – 2015, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), who is living life always with a smile on her face with her family that is experiencing financial problems in St. Petersburg.
After some rather brutal battles with the French, Andrei and Nikolai Rostova (Jack Lowden – ’71) have managed to escape with their lives. While Nikolai is thrilled, Andrei is rather morose. In St. Petersburg Pierre’s life has changed forever as his father has died and named him his soul heir making Pierre a wealthy man. His newfound wealth has attracted the wrong kind of attention especially from his uncle Vassily (Stephen Rea – The Crying Game, Underworld: Awakening), who is looking to cash in by marrying off his beautiful, but troubled daughter, Helene (Tuppence Middleton – The Imitation Game, Jupiter Ascending), to the naïve man.
Andrei’s life continues to go downhill and he secludes himself in the country until a visit from an equally unhappy Pierre, who is married to the duplicitous Helene. Natasha is excited about her first ball and even more so when she meets Andrei there. Pierre decides to try and repair his relationship with Helene. Natasha and Andrei’s relationship turns to love, but he tells her he has been instructed by his father (Jim Broadbent – Gangs of New York, Moulin Rouge!) to go away for one year before he will give his blessing to a marriage. While Natasha waits for him she finds temptation in Moscow.
Peace is short lived as Napoleon once again invades Russia. As both sides prepare for great battles Andrei finds himself not able to forgive Natasha and wants revenge on his rival for her affection. Beside herself Natasha becomes ill and Pierre takes charge of taking care of her. Moscow is now in danger and Natasha and the Rostova family retreat to the countryside.
Andrei and Pierre are fighting on the front lines. Andrei, Pierre, Natasha, and Helene’s lives all change radically during this time. All wonder if peace will ever come?
The foibles of human beings are unflinchingly on display in Tolstoy’s epic story. Humans are shown to be corrupt, foolish, fallible, hopeful, admirable, dishonest, and violent. Despite all this it also shows us how wonderful life can be when there is love.
Of course, it would be asking too much to expect that every detail from the sprawling novel is here. Time constraints (6 hours) wouldn’t allow that. There is too much to ever really do it justice. That being said, it is brought to life in an epic and bittersweet way. Being more accessible it does do the story the service of drawing in a younger and maybe uninitiated audience.
Being perfectly honest the story at times paradoxically seems rushed and then other times dragging on a little. That is being rather nitpicky though. All in all it is a triumph. The cinematography is stunning. A real treat for the eyes. The main characters all benefit from exquisite close-ups and the vistas are extensive. Actually, all the sets and locations are wonderful in detail and scale.
Besides the high production values the large cast – which also includes Gillian Anderson (from television’s The X-Files), Greta Scacchi (Presumed Innocent, Emma – 1996), Brian Cox (Braveheart, The Bourne Identity), and Thomas Arnold (Thor 2: The Dark World, Robin Hood – 2004) – does a good job. Especially Paul Dano, whose delicate turn as Pierre opened my eyes to breadth of his talent.
This heightened time forces many Russians to really discover who they are and what their purpose in life is. During such a time it really amplifies emotions, relationships and social mores. Despite all the expectations and amped up emotions involved in the adaptation of such a beloved novel Tom Harper’s (several episodes of the television series Peaky Blinders) version is largely a success.
From Page to Screen (1080i, 4:44): Screenwriter Andrew Davies talks about how he went about the adaptation of the novel, reads from the script while director Tom Harper talks about bringing the script to life.
The Read Through (1080i, 2:25): The cast and crew talk about how important a read-through was.
Making the Music (1080i, 2:25): Short look at the music involved in the mini-series with Michael Garvey, Director of Music/BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Martin Phipps, Composer; and Andrew Skeet, Orchestrator & Conductor.
Count Rostov’s Dance (1080i, 1:11): A dance scene is analyzed by choreographer Diana Scrivener and Actor Adrian Edmondson.
Rundale Palace (1080i, 2:14): The Head of Records Department Jana Druvina discusses the series’ historical highlights.
What Is War & Peace? (1080i, 1:04): Short look from the cast at the story they ae telling.