Life & Death
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Andrew Davies will perhaps be best remembered for the moment a young Colin Firth rose out of the lake in a wet, dripping white dress shirt. But the drama that gave birth to that moment is more than a deluge in an iconic moment of eroticism. Davies’s adaptation of the Jane Austen classic Pride & Prejudice boasted sizzling performances and a deft screenplay that brought the authenticity of Austen’s voice to a postmodern audience. It was sexed up but that didn’t distract from the thematic richness of the miniseries. When the BBC announced their upcoming adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace, Davies seemed the natural fit to pen the seminal novel’s transition to the screen. Nevertheless, the endeavor seemed a fairly difficult exercise in adaptation, the breadth and philosophical depth of the original text often forbidding it from an adaptation that feels complete or at the very least understanding. Tolstoy’s text is at the surface consumed with young love, tragic missed moments, and the obsessive compulsion of marriages to the best possible Count. But the novel is ubiquitous with a significant deluge of philosophies, including an examination of the forbidding detachment of the aristocratic ruling class and the far-reaching consequences of war, even upon those whom didn’t imagine that a battle so far away could touch their lives in the fashions that it does. The philosophies work within the construct of complex characters, their changing facets as they slowly realize that the war is never truly escaping them and how those paths force them to confront their past, present, and if they are fortunate to have it, a future. By the end of War & Peace, there is this indefatigable sense that these characters have grown organically (whether in a progressive or regressive direction) and the epic settings allow for that sense of organic growth to extend beyond the characters themselves and enrich the philosophies Tolstoy embodied in the text.
This version of War & Peace is a much more concise, centralized version of Tolstoy’s story. Davies understandably noted that he had to cut out half of the novel to fit the story into the six and a half hours he had been allotted. His screenplay is quite admirable within that construct, at its best taking the thematic and character constructions of Tolstoy and whittling them down to where they retain that construction but in a way that the miniseries can manage. A key scene in that vein is Pierre bumbling after a young Russian soldier just so he could help garner wood and feel for once that his life is worth something and even that goes terribly wrong. At its weakest moments (and there are few of those to be fair), however, that time constraint unfortunately shows. Moments like Natasha and Pierre’s conversation in the finale work on their own in considerable part due to the sheer charisma of the performances, but there is that dogged undertone that if there had been two more hours, that conversation would have felt more germane and that emotional charge would have been considerably stronger. The sequences with Pierre and the Freemasons, which comprise a well-scripted chunk of an episode by themselves, are surprisingly ingrained into the larger framework of the series. But they, like the chunks of the narrative embodied in the idyllic Russian countryside, deserved more time to be able to breathe and grow. I’m not sure the largesse of twenty hours that the 1972 BBC version had is necessarily required here, but two to four more would have allotted Davies the ability to allow the narrative to take up the appropriate heft. The quiet moments would have sunk in to a greater degree and the battle sequences would have coincidentally have cut in deeper than the holes left behind by the massive French cannons.
If the notes on the timeframe of the miniseries are slightly harsh, it’s only because everything else is largely so resplendent. Davies manages to capture a great deal of what made Tolstoy’s novel so unique, even if some nineteenth century tropes are more evident on screen than they were on the page. The most stunning is the amount of thematic richness Davies manages to bring within his confines to a postmodern audience, creating perhaps the most approachable adaptation of the story yet. The philosophies are leaner and thusly more easily attainable, entrenched in the convictions of the characters and their reactions to the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances arriving before them in like. Their core, however, isn’t lost and in the adaptation process that is perhaps the most vital aspect of it all. Even amidst the vast plethora of characters (there are enough to give Game of Thrones a serious run for its money) there are beautifully constructed character arcs, the final legs of their journeys especially imbued with a beautiful, tragic sense of poignancy. The costuming is gorgeous beyond belief, anachronistic in a few instances but otherwise transcendent in its beauty and allegory. The settings are suitably epic, from the famed frigid landscapes of the Russian Empire to the gilded, golden interiors of the aristocratic palaces where young lovers fall for one another amidst a romantic waltz. War & Peace was filmed on location in Russia, Latvia, and Lithuania and despite the anachronistic Britishness that seeps in every now and then, the locations go a long way towards establishing the succinct Russian atmosphere that is so crucial to the story’s depiction even though many of its themes are universal.
The battle sequences are thrillingly filmed, no doubt taking a good chunk out of the budget as the camera goes through the absolute chaos of Napoleon’s invasions of the empire that would harken the end of his own. The first episode offers a great window into the filming prowess on display here from director Tom Harper as a Russian messenger rides through a darkened, blood-soaked battlefield, trying to reach his fellow troops before he’s shot or blown apart by a French cannon. But the real showstopper arrives at the Battle of Borodino, which was fought on September 7th, 2012 near the village of Borodino, which in the present day resides in the Mozhaysky District in Moscow Oblast. A rousing chorus of Russian chants, the show’s battle audio motif, rises out of the fog as cannons and bombs arrive. Pierre, displaying his knack for being in the wrong place at the worst time possible, bumbles through the battlefield, trying to be useful. But one of the bloodiest battlefields of the era (the battle involved 250,000 troops and resulted in at least 70,000 casualties) is not the place where one should try and find their life’s purpose. But Pierre’s presence in the bloodiest days of the Napoleonic Wars provides a perfect window for the audience to follow the sheer carnage of the battle, the complete erasure of any notion of “glory” in war, and the depth of depravity that is born out of a battlefield where every moment could be someone’s last. The last bit is of special concern to War & Peace, which makes its war scenes count when they hit. The opening of the series has all of the typical machismo one expects from young men who are marching off to war, their eyes brimming with the ideas of bringing glory to their name as they get placed into their dashing uniforms. Then the first splatter of blood splashes across their face and the glory is gone in an instant. There’s only the sheer horror of what’s facing them and knowing the historical reality of how everything plays out only serves to deepen the dread that seeps over each battlefield in accompaniment to the fog.
The characters are perhaps the true winners here (the music and cinematography are close seconds), with each performance brining something unique and complex to individuals who perhaps at the onset seem to be quite simple. Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella) shines as Natasha, bringing a welcome pathos to the character’s dark, tragic journey of maturing amidst significantly darkening circumstances. Her best scene is arguably the one where she taps into the country roots of her Russian heritage. It’s quiet but speaks considerable volumes and a good part of is due to how thoroughly the emotional complexity of the circumstances etches itself across her visage. James Norton (Happy Valley, Grantchester) fills the role of the stoic Prince Andrei and his brief, shining moment of brightness superbly. Paul Dano (Love & Mercy, Swiss Army Man) is thoroughly charming and endearing as Pierre Bezukhov, thrust into a role in an aristocracy that eschews him as a non-entity. His journey of self-discovery is perhaps the most well-defined. Jessie Buckley (Shades of Love) is a standout as Marya Bolkonskaya, imbuing within her performance a quiet, steely resolve hiding a much sterner resolve than many could manage. Aisling Loftus’s Sonya Rostova is perhaps the most tragic figure in the principal cast, torn down in large part because she wasn’t a woman with a fortune to her name. The final scene could almost be seen as an idyllic happy-ish ending to some of the nightmares the characters have lived through, but Sonya’s presence undercuts that happiness considerably. Tuppence Middleton is stunning as Hélène Kuragina, cutting into her sharp, efficient cruelty effortlessly. Her final scene could have been one where the audience felt no sympathy, but as Davies is wont do so, there’s an unexpected pathos in someone within whom little could be expected. The British heavyweights Stephen Rea, Brian Cox, Jim Broadbent, Rebecca Front, and Gillian Anderson all excel within their limited screentime. Their seemingly effortless gravitas is but one reason that the flawed, but brilliant War & Peace has become one of the greatest costume dramas to grace the Golden Era of Television.
Note: The British version of six episodes is the one reviewed here. The American version has eight episodes for a shorter running time and as far as I know, it’s not as complete so seek out the British version instead if you can.
Name: War & Peace
Episode Titles: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5, Episode 6
Suggested Episode Titles: Life & Death, Asphodel, Arbutus in Gold, A Green Willow in Wait, A Field of Eglantines, War & Peace
Based on: War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Executive Produced by: Andrew Davies, Bethan Jones, Faith Penhale, Simon Vaughan, Harvey Weinstein, Robert Walak
Produced by: Julia Stannard
Written by: Andrew Davies
Directed by: Tom Harper
Starring: Paul Dano, Lily James, James Norton, Jessie Buckley, Jack Lowden, Aisling Loftus, Tom Burke, Tuppence Middleton, Callum Turner, Adrian Edmondson, Rebecca Front, Greta Scacchi, Aneurin Barnard, Mathieu Kassovitz, Stephen Rea, Brian Cox, Kenneth Cranham, Ken Stott, Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent
Music by: Martin Phipps
Edited by: Mark Eckersley, Steven Worsley
Cinematography: George Steel
Production Company(s): BBC Cymru Wales, The Weinstein Company, Lookout Point, BBC Worldwide
Distributor(s): BBC, A&E Networks
Image Courtesy: Metro UK