The Rostovs leave Moscow as the French army draws near, leading to an unexpected reunion, Pierre performs a heroic act which has repercussions for both he and his wife, while Sonya makes an important...
I read Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE when I was fifteen, and over the years I've read it so many times that the characters are almost like friends and family. And I have to say that on the whole this BBC adaptation was exciting, romantic, and great fun to watch!
Lily James is perfect as Natasha Rostov. She excels at capturing all the moods of a young girl's coming of age, from giddy excitement to tearful despair to frank curiosity about men and sex. The thing about Natasha is that she has to be as natural and exuberant in a fabulous ballgown surrounded by glittering aristocrats as she is in a log cabin making merry among the Russian peasants. That's a lot to take on and Lily James manages it all perfectly. Bravo!
James Norton and Jessie Buckley are both tremendously impressive as the Bolkonsky siblings, Andrey and his sister Marya. Both of them capture how deeply spiritual their characters are, in very different ways. Prince Andrey's search for meaning leads him to a near death experience on the battlefield, but his spiritual longings come across clearly even when is acting the part of a haughty aristocrat. Jessie Buckley's longing for her father's love is beautifully expressed, as is her devotion to Christian love in general. In the book Tolstoy suggests that Princess Marya's goal is simply "to love men as Christ loved men" and that quality is evident in every scene she plays.
I had a lot of trouble accepting Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov. So much of Pierre's stature in the novel comes from . . . well, from his stature. He's described over and over as being tall, broad shouldered, clumsy, too big to fit indoors, moving like a big bear. His childlike qualities, his kindness and trusting nature, are balanced out by a gigantic and often menacing physical presence.
Now, Paul Dano gets the childish side of Pierre perfectly, but in the darker moments there's definitely something missing. Even when he's a prisoner of the French he comes across more like Billy Pilgrim in SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE than like the Pierre of the book, who is looked upon by both prisoners and guards as a natural leader. I think there's a tendency today to downplay brute male strength as a positive asset, and Paul Dano's casting is symptomatic of a kind of bizarre politically correct form of censorship. But after all, this is a very multi- faceted character, and Paul D. certainly does capture Pierre's gentleness and kindness.
I don't want this to be a ten page review, so I just want to say that the rest of the very large cast is absolutely extraordinary. While Andrey, Pierre, Natasha and Marya are so complex that no actor could really capture them completely, there are dozens of lesser characters who actually come more to life in this mini-series than they do in the book itself. I just want to mention very briefly the following performances:
Tom Burke as Dolohov and Thomas Arnold as Denisov . . . these two characters are like book-ends, the good guy soldier and the bad guy soldier. And the two Toms nail them perfectly!
Aisling Loftus as Sonya was a true revelation. Reading the book as a kid, I always felt like Tolstoy had it in for Sonya. She's the poor relation who always gets left out in the cold, and Tolstoy does a lot of victim-blaming to rationalize how the system works. But Aisling Loftus gives Sonya a depth, strength, and courage that's actually better than what's in the book!
Greta Scacchi and Adrian Edmondson as Countess Rostov her husband Count Rostov. So much of the magic of WAR AND PEACE comes from the sense of family warmth and happiness in the Rostov home. These two actors really make you understand why Nikolay and his sister Natasha are so much loved and so at home in the world, because they grew up with the most loving parents imaginable! Even their flaws are endearing and totally believable.
Tuppence Middleton and Callum Turner really make an impression as the evil, deadly siblings, Helene and Anatole Kuragin. The two of them are like a perfectly matched pair of dragons, or a couple of deliciously deadly vampires set down among the unsuspecting nobility! But the actors find something sad and almost desperate about both of them, keeping them real and capturing the humanity of Tolstoy's vision even with characters he painted in very broad strokes.
The highest compliment you can pay to this production is that the great characters are represented in (almost) all their complexity, and that there are minor characters who are more real here than they were on the printed page. What a fabulous achievement for the writer, the director, the fabulous cast and the BBC!
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