A young and attractive cast pulls Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” from the depths of English Lit torture.
War and Peace is often the butt of many English class jokes. It’s a vast, thick, dense novel that holds a stronger reputation as “the one to avoid” over its rightful reputation as the classic it deserves to be. It’s even the object used to (improbably) torture Charlie Brown in Happy New Year! Charlie Brown and the recent The Peanuts Movie. So, with such a reputation preceding it, director Tom Harper (best known in the U.S. for The Woman in Black: Angel of Death) and writer Andrew Davies (House of Cards) certainly have their work cut out for them in adapting War and Peace for a modern era. The good news is early results are extremely promising.
The novel’s cast of characters is enormous, but the production casts enough well known faces to keep the confusion to a minimum. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) seems initially off-putting in the central role of Pierre Bezukhov, an idealistic revolutionary type who passes his days drinking and strapping police officers to the backs of bears. When his estranged father dies, he receives a huge fortune and the title of Count Bezukhov. He’s then thrown into Russian society – and the clutches of its power hungry upper-middle class – in an extremely ill-fitting arrangement. The greatest moment of the first hour’s end belongs to Dano as he discovers the applause at a dinner party is to celebrate his engagement. He was blissfully unaware of the arrangement. Lily James (Cinderella, Downton Abbey) has the other crucial role of Natasha Rostova, an effervescent girl from a nobel’s family. She has a minor presence in the hour I’ve seen, but she carries off the material as effortlessly as she did her role in Downton Abbey. Of course, all of the scheming and social climbing is set against the Napoleonic Wars.
Aside from these two leads, the more prominent, younger members of the cast all seem to have just stepped out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. They attack these roles as if they were born into them, and they all wear the period costumes as if they were a second skin. The remainder of the cast is filled with film and television stars like Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Brian Cox, Stephen Rea, and Greta Scacchi – all equally well equipped to handle the complex material. Harper and Davies have fashioned an extremely fluid and fast-paced production that bears little of the complications which have served as a barrier for so many readers. It helps that the technical merits are extraordinary with lush cinematography capturing the exquisite sets and beautiful scenery. Emmy nominations are all but ensured for the Creative Arts categories next fall, and performance awards are a strong possibility.
Overall, War and Peace offers an exciting and engaging start to a lavish miniseries. It’s everything that last summer’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell should have been had it not been more imaginatively produced on a stronger budget. But War and Peace could very well be one of the strongest limited series to hit television this year. Don’t let the title dissuade you. A passionate and vital heart beats beneath it.
War and Peace airs tonight simultaneously on A&E, Lifetime, and The History Channel beginning at 9pm ET. It continues in four 2-hour blocks over the next four weeks. Check local listings.