Based on the Leo Tolstoy novel, War and Peace, the bloody conflict endures and the families of Russian aristocracy begin to get restless. The five main families in our story are beginning to see that their lives of wealth, splendor and class rules may soon come to an end. War & Peace makes people with power, influence and wealth learn how to live the hard way. It shows them the honest and brutal truths of their world and that all one has can be snatched away in the blink of an eye. The bourgeoise are taught how to live when the French come and take all that they hold most dear. They turn their happiness to ashes in front of them and only then do the rich and wealthy see how the common people live everyday. Through the horrors of war have they found peace within their souls and very essence of being?
The upper class Andrew Bolkonsky (James Norton) is rather grim and serious most of the time, much akin to Pride & Prejudice’s Mr Darcy. Paul Dano’s (Love & Mercy) Pierre Bezukhov is unbearably naive, starry-eyed and ditsy at times yet he turned out to be my favorite character in the end. Stephen Rea (V For Vendetta) plays a Petyr Baelish-esque spidery opportunist thriving of others’ misfortune with his partner in crime Anna Pavlovna Scherer (Gillian Anderson).
The aristocrats are undoubtedly conniving, secretive and as trustworthy as a snake, except for the innocent or stupid ones like Pierre Bezukhov (Dano) or Natasha Rostova (Lily James) as well as sex scandals with characters like the local harlot Helene Bezukhova (Tuppence Middleton) who makes Downton Abbey’s Mary Crawley look like a law-abiding citizen. The general look of the show is picturesque clad with fine set pieces and well-dressed princes and princesses. Add in the jaw-dropping beautiful location shooting in what’s supposed to be war-torn Russia rather than the Enchanted Wood in Narnia and you’ll soon imagine the scenery better. The battles are well put together and incredibly choreographed and are admirably a refreshing change from the tedious judgmental ideologies and wit of the Russian court.
This series was split into six parts. I have not read the book yet, but I think the series could have been double it’s length in having twelve one hour episodes rather than the short bite-size series we received, at six episodes. This could have been something to rival Downton Abbey if it had been given the opportunity to develop its characters more. This series would have done better as a Netflix Original series with a longer season. I don’t blame the actors, the casting was on point. I blame the BBC for trying to condense an epic novel into six and a half hours of screen time.
Paul Dano is one of my favorite actors at the moment having so aptly played a horrendous racist in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave and then played a young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. He’s also known for Little Miss Sunshine, The Prisoners and Youth (with Michael Caine). He’s an established Hollywood actor and I love his performance in War & Peace. He started off as irritating, but I warmed to his character within two episodes. He plays the quiet yet opinionated Pierre with such charm and charisma. He’s shy but he’s not shy at the same time and I think Dano captures that really well. I can’t comment on the book to show transitions of different characters but as a first time introduction to the character, I have no complaints.
Jim Broadbent (Harry Potter) is a stage veteran and he’s one of the best alumni we have from the golden age of comedy in Only Fools & Horses in which he played Roy Slater. In War & Peace, Broadbent plays Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky and he delivers an A grade performance. I know some of my peers found him annoying but I found him anything but; I absolutely enjoyed watching him at work playing this character. His character is cold, pragmatic and very emotionally detached with his children, but he still cares about them and what they want from life. Jim Broadbent is a marvel and a credit to film and television, but I’m also glad to call him one of our own. Britain has some of the best talents in the industry and some of the newcomers in recent years have shocked me.
The BBC have been getting more liberal with their programming lately with shows like Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street. Anyone who has watched Peaky Blinders knows how gritty and bloody it is. However the BBC was normally the network you could count on where nothing would vary above a PG. Now, we’re getting all manners of things. The BBC have taken a leaf out of Game Of Thrones’ book. War & Peace was quite sensual and rather sexed up to the point that even the incest wasn’t omitted (though not so frequent as the Lannisters).
I’m glad the BBC are adapting to the modern world. Networks are becoming increasingly free with what they distribute. Look at HBO (Game Of Thrones, True Detective), Showtime (Penny Dreadful) and even more lesser known networks like Starz (Outlander, Black Sails). All these series don’t really hold back when it comes to content and more recently online programming like Netflix has decided to not pull any punches with R-Rated comic book television series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones but also White House political dramas like House Of Cards and period history dramas like Marco Polo. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Lily James (Downton Abbey) and James Norton (Happy Valley) are the stars of the series but I found their performances were overshadowed by other members of the cast. They were good but lacking and didn’t really find their feet properly. I think, given more time (more episodes) they would have become more prominent rather than falling flat on their faces. There are some great set pieces that are visually stunning as well as awesome costumes. I was flabbergasted by the aesthetics and mis-en-scene of the show.The battle scenes matched the quality of Last Kingdom or even HBO’s Game Of Thrones. They were truly stunning and the BBC has a knack for depicting greatly awesome battle scenes in their period history dramas. They are presented with such ruthlessness and energy. I was blown away by their sheer quality and the concentrated brutality of some of the shots between the Russian military and Napoleon’s force. This series darts around between Russia’s major families and sometimes I felt that there was no time to become acquainted with the characters.
This series is a great watch but as soon as it gets going, it finishes. It’s great to bingewatch on a Sunday afternoon. I really enjoyed the series and it has some great acting from distinguished actors of very British shows of the past but also actors from the more commercial shows like Gillian Anderson (from Hannibal and The X-Files) rather than umpteen known faces from random period dramas you’ve seen on television. A lot of period dramas these days are made with relatively unknown actors. It was good to see one that used already established household names. All in all, a grand watch. Much of the legwork was there; it just needed that extra push. My only qualm is that it needed more episodes to expand the story a bit more, develop the characters and create a relationship between the audience and the world we are venturing into.