The BBC’s decision to commission an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace —one of the longest novels ever written — into a six part mini-series is one of their most ambitious decisions to date but it has certainly paid off. Directed by Tom Harper and written for the screen by Andrew Davies, best known for his 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace follows the utterly appalling decisions made by the Moscow bourgeoisie crowd as they navigate love and death in the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. The series is a lavish period drama delight with a peculiar mix of classic Austen and gigantic Russian military battles thrown in.
The casting is excellent as rising British star James Norton — recently seen as the menacing killer Tommy Lee Royce in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley — captured hearts as the brooding and noble Darcy-esque Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, accompanied by Lily James — currently starring in cinemas as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — who stars as the giddy and flighty Natasha Rostova. Meanwhile, American actor Paul Dano is dubiously cast as the baby-faced social outcast Pierre Bezukhov, yet he soon proves his worth as Pierre undergoes far too many identity crises.
The six episodes chart the lives of Prince Andrei, Natasha, Pierre and their various families and suitors over the course of many years, though the cast members fail to age in the slightest. Here, some of most notable scene-stealing performances come from Jessie Buckley as the kind-hearted Princess Marya Bolkonskaya, who is cruelly belittled by her father Prince Nikolai Bolkonskaya (Jim Broadbent), and Aisling Loftus, who shines as the endlessly patient Sonya Rostova as she falls helplessly in love with her cousin Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden). However, with no fortune behind her, she knows Nikolai’s parents, the Countess Rostova (Greta Scaachi) and Count Rostov (a loveable Ade Edmondson), will struggle to accept their relationship.
Of course, every period piece needs at least a few villains; Tom Burke excels as the wolfish troublesome Fedya Dolokhov, and Callum Turner has a dangerous glint in his eyes as Anatole Kuragin who is effectively the George Wickham of the series. Meanwhile, Anatole’s sister, Helene Kuragina (Tuppence Middleton), acts as the true villain of the series; the woman at the height of Moscow society who will do anything to grasp her hands on Pierre’s vast fortune.
Pierre proves the most surprising underdog character as when he is first introduced, he is a drunken, a social outcast and, quite frankly, a bit of a loser. However, as he unexpectedly gains a grand fortune and is forced into a hasty marriage, he suddenly questions the meaning of life and undertakes a fantastic character transformation. His most memorable moment will always be deciding to attend the bloody battlefront of Borodino and asking very politely to any soldier who would listen; “May I be of any assistance?”
The problems that do arise within War and Peace is that due to cramming so much story into six episodes, coincidences that lack subtlety fall thick and fast. For example, as Natasha, desperate to be reunited with Pierre, stares at the crowd of thousands of Moscow residents fleeing the city as Napoleon invades, she just happens to stumble into him and as she and the Rostova’s retreat to the Russian countryside, a severely injured Prince Andrei just happens to be in the local neighbourhood.
Despite these issues, War and Peace is perhaps one of the best period television dramas to come from the BBC in recent years. Every episode is bathed with fantastic storytelling and wonderful performances. Each addition to this mini-series, including the near feature length series finale, is addictive and as the credits scroll, you will find yourself hoping for more.
- Reviewed by Anna Richards