There are three things the BBC does very well. Nature/science documentaries (narration by Attenborough or GTFO), make baking seem interesting, and most pertinently costume drama. As such, expectations were high when it was announced they were attempting to adapt what is regarded as one of the greatest works of literature in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In collaboration with production partners The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point, they brought in screenwriter Andrew Davies (House of Cards, Vanity Fair, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jone’s Diary) and director Tom Harper (Misfits, This Is England ’86, The Borrowers, Peaky Blinders) to lend the project a disctinction behind the camera to match the impressive cast lined up to bring the story to life in front of it.
War & Peace is a sprawling tale involving multiple characters embroiled in the shifting political and social structure of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. It touches on aspects of love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, politics and power. Tolstoy’s novel is regarded by many as one of the finest pieces of literature to ever be penned, as such, any attempt to adapt it will be regarded as a formidable task. It’s been been well over a decade since I last visited the classic, as such comparisons between the text and this adaptation are a little hazy but the overall impression is that while it (obviously) lacks the depth of the book, this interpretation remains an emotionally charged rendering of Tolstoy’s vision. Davies tempers the more preachier aspects of the text, instead letting the human elements of the tale carry the weight without oversimplifying the story either.
Set and costume design are impressive, the trappings of 19th Century Russia is lavishly recreated as are the horrors of the war with the French. Granted the production does not quite convey the sense of scale a motion picture would in such scenes, the longer runtime afforded by the mini-series approach is far more fitting to give the narrative and characters more development. There has been some commentary on this version being a bit “sexed up” and while it may show scenes and relationships only suggested at in the original pages, doing so feels more in service of adding understanding to a character rather than to sensationalize a scene. That said, there feels a good balance between the elements of a good “bodice-ripper” aligned to the drier historical and philosophical elements of Tolstoy’s book.
The impressive visuals are matched by an equally compelling cast. Lily James as Natasha and Paul Dano (surprisingly unslappable) as Pierre are superb, as are the more peripheral characters, brought to life by notables such as Tuppence Middleton, Brian Cox, James Norton, Gillian Anderson and Jim Broadbent. War & Peace is a story deeply in service to it’s characters, looking at their motivations, their passions and their changing psychology when dragged through the horrors of war. The ensemble succeed in honoring this intent. How passions, patriotism, and idealism, all serve to define and in some cases undo people is at the core of Tolstoy’s book and it remains so here.
THE PACKAGEWar & Peace seems to have been deliberately filmed with an ethereal aesthetic. The series is at times hazy, colors are usually muted, details drift away in a soft-focus approach to filming. The release faithfully showcases this deliberate approach, it’s a shame a more striking look wasn’t adopted for the series but the quality of the Blu-ray cannot be faulted.
The release contains all six episodes of the mini-series spread over two discs, the second of which contains a number of featurettes:
- From Page to Screen shows how Andrew Davies chose to adapt the novel, how he drew from the text and made it relatable to people today. Tom Harper also discusses his approach to the production.
- The Read Through has Davis and Harper return to emphasize the importance of a read through, allowing tweaks to the script as well as their chance to impart their vision to the cast.
- Making the Music features Michael Garvey, BBC Director of Music, Composer Martin Phipps, Composer; and conductor Andrew Skeet about the approach to the musical composition for the show.
Count Rostov’s Dance looks at the preparation for one specific scene with choreographer Diana Scrivener and actor Adrian Edmondson.
- Rundale Palace takes a look at an actual location used in the filming touching on aspects of it’s history, design and furnishings.
- What is War & Peace? quickly intercuts interview segments where cast members give their views on what they believe the novel is about.
These extras seemingly offer insight into interesting facets of the film however their brevity means they barely scratch the surface. I’m sure there is a wealth of extra footage and information out there, it’s a shame it wasn’t included.
THE BOTTOM LINEWar & Peace is a towering work and this adaptation is deftly told. Although some aspects, notably the battle sequences, feel a tad constrained by the mini-series approach, the other aspects of the adaptation more than compensate, notably some outstanding production design and an impressive cast driving home the themes and emotions of the text. While the special features are disappointing, this release offers up an adaptation sure to please both fans of Tolstoy and those too daunted to take on the reading of his opus.
War & Peace is available on Blu-ray and DVD on May 10th, 2016.