When the BBC throws money at something it generally doesn’t come out shit, when you then assemble a cast of actors who the thought of makes you quiver at the knees and you are adapting one of the great pieces of literature, expectations couldn’t really be any higher.
Yet despite all these expectations, War & Peace delivered to the greatest degree, in what is one of the best mini-series to have come out of Britain (and in general) for a long time. If you haven’t watched it then I’d recommend doing so and I wouldn’t read any further as this review will contain spoilers.
So the cat is sort of out of the bag, as I’ve already said that I thought this was an incredibly good TV show, which is sort of like watching the last five minutes of War & Peace and wondering how the fuck everything ended up like that and why Prince Andrei wasn’t invited to the nice picnic, needless to say I’m going to talk about why it was so great, a bit like knowing the scores then watching the highlights.
I have to admit that I have never read War & Peace, now did I actually know the plot of the story, so I can’t comment on the differences between the book and the TV show, hence I am approaching this from a totally fresh approach, so I apologise if I say something which those who are educated in Russian literature would find repugnant.
On that matter, I thought the actual plot was excellent and the story flowed beautifully, with many diverse and interesting characters and had a great story to tell about life, philosophy and forgiveness. The Napoleonic era is such a fascinating piece of history, and his failed invasion of Russia is the thing of legend, an immense setting. This series made me want to read the book (which is apparently a big of a slog), which is a massive compliment to the general quality of both the story and this adaptation.
The beauty of a British production is that it is very rarely over done, and the six episode format is perfect for that. If one were to look for a criticism of War & Peace, it would be that it moved at a ferocious pace, and it felt like it could have maybe done with an extra couple of episodes so that further plot areas could have been explored, however there is nothing worse than over saturation in a TV series, and when it concludes you should be left wanting more, rather than being glad that it’s over. War & Peace left the viewer wanting more, whilst also being satisfied at the story which was told, the perfect mix.
The general pacing was quick, however it was hard to not be totally engaged after the first episode. Being introduced to so many new characters all at once can leave an audience over whelmed, however it was handled terrifically as each character was allowed to grow through the series, with very few not getting their moment to shine.
I think part of the brilliance of the series was its ability to introduce characters into episodes in major ways and then have them drop to more of a supporting role in later instalments. Prince Vassily is a great example of this where he was a major part of the series for the first two episodes, and then was used sparingly, but the connection had been made. The same can be said about Anatole who managed to make you dislike him in one episode and then hate him the next time he featured. Both characters felt like big important parts of the story (which they were) despite only featuring prominently in four episodes between them.
Dolokhov’s arc was specifically handled very well, you thought he was a rascal, then you disliked him for how he treated Nikolai and his helping hand when Anatole tried to elope with Natasha, only for him to redeem himself with Pierre and in the end when he saved Pierre from the French you couldn’t help but cheer his name. To have so many different emotions towards one character, never mind the fact that they are a supporting one, in such a short episode format is quite something, and even better is the fact that it never felt forced.
The acting generally was superb, Paul Dano as Pierre was absolutely immense, totally believable and handled the character perfectly, which should come as no surprise because he is an excellent actor. Lily James had a hard role to portray, because at the start of the series she was portraying a 13 year old and by the end she was portraying a 20 year old, which is quite the difference in what would be expected from a performance, yet she did very well. James Norton as Prince Andrei was stealing hearts left, right and centre with his handsome jawline, and a great performance too in what is a hard role to portray (brooding, stoic).
It’s hard to talk about every acting performance because there were so many great ones, however other standout performances for me were Stephen Rea (Prince Vassily), Tuppence Middleton (Helene), Callum Turner (Anatole), Adrian Edmondson (Ilya) and possibly the best of them all was Jessie Buckley (Marya).
The costume and set design was quite spectacular and seemed very grand in scale. The interior of the palaces and the ballrooms, as well as the battlefields made the series ooze quality. It is one of those things when you turn on a series and look at the set design, that you can often tell the quality based upon set design, and War & Peace’s set design was sublime.
The camera work was also something to behold, whether it be the manner in which they filmed Anatole’s seduction of Natasha, the manner in which the battlefield was filmed (especially the shot of Pierre being blown backwards along the ground by the ammunition blast) or how Pierre was filmed running around Moscow as it burned to the ground, giving that great feeling of a man who had lost his senses.
Speaking of the battles, they were such a spectacle, giving the feeling of actually being in the middle of the fight with all the brutality. It’s amazing that in six episodes they managed to fit in two massive set pieces like the Battle of Austerlitz and the Battle of Borodino into six episodes. The sounds and visual effects of the two battles were absolutely awesome, yet the two best scenes to come out from the two battles were of Andrei staring into the sky after Austerlitz and Andrei’s meeting in the medical tent with Anatole during Borodino.
What a great scene that really was, the sound of the saw tearing through the leg, the realisation that it is Anatole who is lying next to Andrei having his leg sawn off, Anatole having his leg held up for him, the joy that such a prick has received his comeuppance and then the forgiveness and symbolism of the two love rivals loosely holding hands over their shared fate, really well done.
Yet the best scene had to be the ballroom scene between Andrei and Natasha. I am by no means a romantic, however this scene can only be described as perfect. The way it is filmed with each touch seeming like a big deal, the manner in which they swoop around the dance floor gazing at each other, the design of the set, the dresses, the way the extras danced around them, it was just a beautiful piece of television, which is unlikely to be matched for a long time. The fact that this scene made the Daily Mail have to change their views on the show (because they naturally hate everything made by the BBC for no reason and had been slagging it off consistently) says everything about how truly immense it really was.
The only gripes I can have with War & Peace is the ages of the actors involved, as in the story begins in 1805 and culminates in 1812, with the epilogue in 1820, yet none of the actors have aged at all. The worst one is Natasha who is supposed to be 13 initially and by the very end she is 28, yet looks exactly like she did when she was 13 and also happened to be the oldest looking 13 year old in the world (doubt she’s getting ID’d). Obviously there wasn’t really much they could do about this, but it’s one of those things which sort of takes you out of the moment. The other issue would be at times the lack of clothing worn during the winter, superficial I know but at times they were barely wearing two layers.
Generally War & Peace was a bit of a masterpiece; beautifully presented, brilliantly acted and consisted of many memorable moments and performances. Any issues I had with the series were very minor and the things which were great I generally loved (and there were many). If you didn’t enjoy War & Peace then you don’t enjoy quality television, because it was a modern classic.
So leave a comment on what you thought of War & Peace. Are you an Andrei gal or maybe an Anatole guy? Are you wondering why a grown man like Pierre can’t grow a proper beard? Were you taken aback by the performance of Sashenka? Do you now fancy a salted potato? Well leave a comment and share those views.