War & Peace (BBC1)

Adapting one of the longest (and least read) Russian novels for a western TV audience was always going to mean cuts and simplifications.  But has too much been lost in the translation?  Or does this 6 part series do the Tolstoy epic justice?  Having never read the book, I had no idea what to expect, but it pulled me in brilliantly.

It is 1805, and Pierre – favourite bastard son of the Count Bezukhov – returns to Russia after being educated abroad.  At the salon of Anna Pavlovna he awkwardly mingles with the highest in the land.  But as he unexpectedly inherits his father’s title and fortune, war with France is looming, and the lives of Russia’s elite look set to change forever.

The first episode did a fantastic job of establishing the setting and numerous characters.  There are a lot of players and the volley of people and names was a little disconcerting at first. But Anna’s salon succinctly displayed the luxury of life as a Russian aristocrat, and the vacuity and corruption it creates.

The show made the most of its stunning locations in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The palaces were vast and opulent, and looked so solid somehow- like they had been there forever.  It quietly hinted at the hauteur of the elite, their concern with appearances and their disconnection from the rest of society.  This contrasted with the beauty and majesty of the natural landscapes, with their vibrancy and constant changing rhythms.  The use of music was excellent too, giving a sense of time and place, as well as giving the characters nuance.

Of course, the story does suffer a bit in being compressed.  I think that the multiple coincidental meetings are supposed to reflect how much fate – rather than free will – controls our lives.  But on the screen, it does feel a bit too neat.  Such as the benign peasant who pops up to share some wisdom with Pierre, only to die when he has served his purpose.   And the pace does mean that details and intentions aren’t always clear.  Did Anatole die from his wounds?  Does Helene mean to kill herself, or is she only desperate to induce a miscarriage?  Did Boris actually marry his rich heiress?

Oddly enough, while the last episode was the longest – 80 minutes, rather than 60 – events felt more compressed than ever.   It seemed that Andrei was barely laid in his grave before Pierre was proposing to Natalia.  Which may be why the cosy bucolic finale left me cold.  After all the suffering and growth of the characters, it seemed they only learned to go have some kids and sit out in the sunshine –  a bit of cop-out, if you ask me.

But in fairness to the series, I think that the things I disliked (and there weren’t that many, honest!) are actually issues with the story itself, rather than choices made by the programme makers.  I found the whole ‘destiny’ thing rather tiresome.  Sure, many things are beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices and take responsibility for them.  Andrei didn’t die because of fate; he died because he refused to take cover when the shell landed.  Presenting events in this way might be consistent with Tolstoy’s vision, but it did sap tension from the tale. Characters felt like they were floating along, rather than active agents in their lives.  This was especially galling as they were so privileged.  Nikolai balking at his family’s reduced circumstances when he himself gambled away a big chunk of their fortune made me want to throw something at the screen.

But the quality of the performances pulled me back in.  Everyone in this massive cast did well, but Jessie Buckley was outstanding as long-suffering Marya.  Her reaction when her father died, and later when Nikolai ‘proposed’ felt so genuine.  She was glowing with happiness by the end, and it was wonderful to watch.   Paul Dano was also great in a difficult role, making ingenuous, hopeless Pierre believable.

There was also some brilliant story-telling here.  I was never once lost as to who or where or when, which is no mean feat in a story this complex and a cast this big. There were some lovely visual touches, and the costumes were excellent (if a little anachronistic at times).  Helene was pretty irredeemable, but the sight of her pregnant in that wholly-misjudged frock showed both her lack of self-awareness and her vulnerability.   The war scenes were impressive, and strangely beautiful.  Used sparingly, they conveyed the devastation and wastefulness of war, but also the strength of humanity that such horror can throw into relief.  The scene where Pierre goes to retrieve some shot from the munition dump was brilliantly handled.  I also loved the image of the retreating French army; a great line stretched across the landscape, tiny figures dwarfed by the vast, white landscape.

As events drew to a close we got a more philosophical feel, our leads grew and leaned the value of love and forgiveness.  Andrei at peace with the word on his deathbed; Natalia beside him sounding much more grown up, and much more Russian: ‘To suffer with you would be the greatest happiness for me.’  Even Pierre starts to develop, learning to savour life’s simple pleasures, rather than barrelling through looking for an answer that doesn’t exist.  ‘Where there is life, there is happiness.’

All in all, a compelling, brilliantly made series that really brought Tolstoy’s epic to life. I’m even tempted to give the book a go.  Have you read the novel?  How does it compare?  Some have argued that this is the definitive adaptation- do you agree?  What will you watch on your Sunday nights now? Let me know!