I'm conflicted. I'm in a quandary as to whether I love or hate the BBC's latest foray into War and Peace. I think my problem stems from the fact that the book took me by complete surprise. We've grown up hearing the phrase "it's not War and Peace you know!" It's a phrase that strikes horror into the mind of the potential reader; looking at that lumbering great tome brings thoughts of an onerous task ahead and it means that many people are unacquainted with the text. Yes it's a long book, but once you start reading it you get submerged into this world of love, betrayal, politics, war, even strategic military planning. It is a beautifully written book and one that took Tolstoy six years to write. He invested his time researching the history and politics that went into the book and left us with a wonderful legacy, a book that is both historically enlightening, merged with a love story showing the folly of the human heart. Sadly the BBC has chosen to ignore some of the quintessential elements of the book and decided to give us a six hour romp through the Russian aristocracy instead!
The BBC is renowned for making spectacular period drama's, but sometimes I get disheartened that it is just about costumes and exquisite interiors! I was somewhat concerned for this production when I heard that it was going to be sexed up and just about the love stories; let's be honest, sex sells and the BBC needs a hugely successful moneymaker. I think this is why I am in a quandary, it is stunning to look at, but I can't help bleating "they've missed this bit out of the book". Quite frankly it doesn't feel particularly Russian, it's just another costume drama that keeps me entertained for an hour.
War and Peace has a lot of characters and if you don't understand what they are about it is easy to get lost in this adaptation. Trying to get the book into six episodes is a near impossible task, even if you do only concentrate on the love angle of the book. We are whisked away from the grandiose houses of Russia to a battlefield with limited explanation before being whisked back to high society, so the waters are muddied and plot lines cease to make sense. Andrew Davies, the man the BBC charged with bringing this adaptation to the screen, read the book and automatically assumed that the viewing audience would be able to follow the story, but this is far from true. It is not obvious who the people we are watching are, or indeed why we are watching them. I started watching the 1970's version as a comparison; it is already outdated, it is rather theatrical with "period speak", so to take a more modern outlook at the text is commendable and I am thoroughly on board with the idea, but watching the first two episodes I feel that so much has been omitted that the characters have suffered. Bar some outstanding performances by the actors involved, most of the characters seem rather insular and that is a tragedy because when you read the book, they become your friends and you go through many painful journeys with them.
The three main characters are Pierre, Andrei and Natasha. So far I have not been engaged by their performances. They have not commanded my attention at all. Paul Dano is good as Pierre, but I didn't imagine Pierre to be as pitiful as the one on my TV. I'm not sure whether it is the actor or the writer who is at fault, but I always thought of Pierre as this educated, somewhat self-absorbed man, but he is just portrayed as an insipid cuckolded fool.
Andrei is a nobleman fed up of the shallowness of high society. Despite his wife being pregnant, when war starts, it is his excuse to get away from it all and to find some purpose to his life. The first foray into battle however makes him open his eyes, it isn't the answer he is looking for. The reasons for this are not shown in episode one as the writer has cut large elements in respect of the build up to the first battle from his script. We don't see Andrei's perspective on the war, nor the ineptitude of General Bagration, so we need James Norton to fill in the blanks for us, but he doesn't in the first episode. Andrei has a big story arc in the book, in six weeks we are not going to get his full story. We really need James Norton to engage us with the character as much as possible so that we can get emotionally involved in his story. I am pleased to say he did begin to show some emotion in the second episode, and I did see the conflict he faced regarding how he had treated his wife, and I hope that he grows during the rest of the series.
Natasha has appeared to be an ordinary, silly, shallow little girl, practically invisible to all. She is meant to be central to the plot, so hopefully as she ages in the series, she will blossom into a charismatic, captivating, all knowing woman, with a sophisticated charm. I look forward to seeing if Lily James can pull this performance off.
It is probably wrong of me to pick out specific actors who I am loving, but I can't help it. Frankly I am surprised by how much I love Adrian Edmondson in his role as Count Rostov. He loves life, he is warm and caring and tries to brush problems under the carpet! I am of the generation that thinks fondly of him in The Young Ones playing the violent Vyvyan; who knew he could be such a great character actor! I love him as Count Rostov, he plays the role just the correct side of eccentric and I wish he was on screen a bit more. Someone I do know to be a great actor is Jim Broadbent, but I wasn't sure if he was the right person to portray Bolkonsky. On the face of things Bolkonsky is a difficult man to live with, he is rude and arrogant, especially to his long suffering daughter Marya, but behind that closed door he was a different person. He put in a heart wrenching performance in the second episode when he received news that his son Andrei was dead. He brought such vulnerability to this hard-hearted man, and it was a scene that was powerful to watch.
Dolokov is my favourite character in the book, but then the anti-hero is often the most interesting character to follow. He has a blase attitude about everything, but as he isn't one of the main characters in the book, many of my questions about him remain unanswered! In the TV adaptation, Dolokov has even less airtime then he does in the book, so we could have been given a comic pastiche of this larger than life character. Tom Burke however dominates the little airtime he has to bring us a memorable performance of a complete psychopath straight from the pages of Tolstoy's book. People may just think of Dolokov as the "baddie", but on the battlefield he is the man you want by your side, he runs wild eyed at the enemy cutting and slashing them to bits without any thought about his own mortality. If you have a wife however, you wouldn't trust him, or your wife, as far as you could throw them; he will seduce and they will succumb! He takes great joy in announcing his conquests, his gaucheness as he sat at dinner had me squirming in my seat, and then the final insult as he disrespectfully drinks a toast to wives and their lovers with inscrutable calmness! I loved the manner that Tom Burke accepted the challenge of the duel. The acceptance is inferred in the book, not spoken, but that response, with a slightly devious twinkle in the eye, was mesmerising. Tolstoy may not have written that line, but Tom conveys the psychopath that I love in the book and it is obvious that he is enjoying ownership of the role. I particularly loved it when Helene told him to make himself at home and he said "I will" and proceeded to follow her out of the room with a depraved look in his eyes! That said, there is so much more to Dolokov's character and I really hope that we are treated to this in episode three, especially for those who have not read the book and are unaware that this bully has an affectionate, loving side.
All in all, I am enjoying watching War and Peace. The spirit of the book is there, but I think it is pacing itself just a bit too quickly. Maybe eight or ten episodes would still keep the series edgy, but it would allow for some clarity and deeper characterisations to develop. So I think I have concluded that I need to throw the book away for the next four episodes and just sit back and enjoy the programme for what it is. A stylish piece of BBC drama, full of stunning camerawork, beautiful costumes and some phenomenal acting!