Wednesday, February 10, 2016

War and Peace (2016 TV series) Revisited


I love Leo Tolstoy's "War And Peace". It was therefore with great anticipation and excitement that I set out to watch the new BBC production. My initial reaction was no doubt influenced by the other movie/TV productions I had seen and my own reading of the book and listening to an audio book. Here is the good and the bad from my humble perspective. You may notice that I have changed my view and therefore my review of the 2016 TV production.

My first thought after one hour of watching was: this is Tolstoy "light". Do not watch this production without the benefit of a VCR or a complete DVR recording; the advertisements will drive you mad if you cannot avoid them. 

I initially feared that the screen play would edit out so much of the dialogue that the soul of the characters and their stories would not survive. I was wrong. Indeed I regret that I was already prejudiced in favour of my first experience of War and Peace, the BBC production of 1972 starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. It really captured the essence of Tolstoy's characters. This earlier production did not have the beautiful sets of the current show and was a much lower budget work. However it followed the novel fairly closely and produced very recognizable characters from the book. I realized how unreasonable was my reaction to the new TV production (and initial critique ) only after I watched the first episode twice and finally settled into the rhythm of this version.

War & Pace 2106 is visually stunning. I loved the costumes, the internal sets, the scenes from the Russian countryside and the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. Any computer generated graphics were well done and not intrusive.  Most shots were "on location' in the Baltics.

The casting was excellent. It did take time for me to accept the new actors in their roles and begin to identify with them. However by episode two I was hooked. Pierre Bezukhov played by American Paul Dano was, on reflection, a very good choice. Lily James became Natasha Rostova. She was a little too mature for 1805 young-teenage Natasha (James is 26) but by 1815 she was brilliant. James Norton as Andrei Bolkonsky also seasoned well into the tortured soul that is Andrei. 






Jack Lowden played a very good  Nikolai Rostov, acting and and looking like the authentic, innocent, brother of Natasha, off to war for the first time, and quickly learning of war's terrors and reality.

Jim Broadbent. a really great actor, never quite became Prince Bolkonsky for me. He just was not fierce and incorrigible enough. Broadbent created an eccentric Bolkonsky, but one who lacked the hardness and cruelty of the novel's character.

Helene Kuragina was played by Tuppance Middleton. She was pretty and corrupt but not enough of both. There was never any chemistry between her and Pierre that I could detect.  Stephen Rea, a very competent Prince Vassily Kuragin, could only just  "force the issue" as he was made to say, and marry them off.

Here is the principal cast:

  • Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov
  • Lily James as Natasha Rostova
  • James Norton as Andrei Bolkonsky
  • Jessie Buckley as Marya Bolkonskaya
  • Aisling Loftus as Sonya Rostova
  • Jack Lowden as Nikolai Rostov
  • Tom Burke as Fedya Dolokhov
  • Tuppence Middleton as Helene Kuragina
  • Callum Turner as Anatole Kuragin
  • Adrian Edmondson as Count Ilya Rostov
  • Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskaya
  • Greta Scacchi as Countess Natalya Rostova
  • Aneurin Barnard as Boris Drubetskoy
  • Mathieu Kassovitz as Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Stephen Rea as Prince Vassily Kuragin
  • Brian Cox as General Mikhail Kutuzov
  • Ken Stott as Osip Alexeevich Bazdeev
  • Gillian Anderson as Anna Pavlovna Scherer
  • Jim Broadbent as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky

As you can imagine the battles were only "lightly populated" as the LA Times put it. This worked poorly for Austerlitz 1805 but brilliantly for Borodino 1815. The first was a very brief encounter... on TV.  The panoramic shots of the battlefield of Austerlitz are not effective and the combat scenes are typical Hollywood free-for-all's.

The charge of the Pavlograd hussars in their own small 1805 engagement is very good.




The Battle of Borodino (la Moscowa to the French) was extremely violent and realistic. The struggle at the Redoubt is very good television but not for the weak of stomach. There is gore aplenty. The terror and the chaos is written and filmed in a very fine way.  The filming of Borodino is intimate, from Pierre's own perspective, and much more successful. You feel as lost and confused, and ultimately disgusted, as Pierre himself. It is very atmospheric, dynamic and awful.






The burning of Moscow is very well done at the street-scene level, less convincing as you are supposed to see the city burning at a distance, as the Rostov's see it. The Retreat is not strong or terrible enough. The actors look tired but not starving or freezing. The French look as healthy and well clad as they did crossing the Niemen!




Meanwhile, the principals' acting gets better and better. The lovely Lily James is at her very best as the tragic character of the later story. Jessie Buckley plays a perfect Marya Bolkonskaya throughout. Their interaction is excellent. Mature Pierre and mature Natasha are at their very best.

Overall, this is well worth watching and I loved the series after getting through the first hour. By hour ten, I was convinced this was TV worthy of Tolstoy. I re-wrote my review as a result. I will buy the DVD's and watch this over and over again.


As a footnote, I still like the  2007 TV production as described in a prior post:

Clémence Poésy is a perfect Natasha Rostova. Alexander Beyer is likewise an excellent Pierre Bezukhov, as is Alessio Boni as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Violante Placido as Helene Kuragin. 




5 comments:

  1. Fair comment. I enjoyed the series (without adverts!) and I'm sad it couldn't have been a couple of episodes longer. Strill, I think they made a decent fist of it. The most impressivve aspect, I thought, was the cast. Three stand out performers were Tuppence Middleton, James Norton and Jessie Buckley each of whom Ive seen in other things and was impressed at their versatility. Atually I've seen many of the actors in other stuff, so it's probably unfair not to mention others. Rebecca Front and Adrian Edmondson are both actually comedians rather than straight actors, so good on them as well.

    Unfortunately, our current government would like to limit the BBC to second hand news and the occasional documentary, so lets hope we can ake them change their mind ;O)

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  2. A very balanced review and thanks for sharing. I was wondering if you'd change your initial reaction. I enjoyed it very much. I suppose people just don't make movies for the likes of wargamers - regrettably. For mine, Mathieu Kassovitz was grossly miscast but given they wrote out most of the War from War & Peace it mattered less than it could or should have.

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  3. Michael: it wakes a big man to go on record tempering a negative review to say the material he dismissed was actually pretty good. As someone who works in a "creative" field, I saulte you, and thank you for taking the time to do so!

    And maybe now I will go to try to watch an episode...

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  4. It is ironically fitting - such an epic review for War and Peace. I wasn't planning to watch this series but you have definitely peaked my interest. Thank you for providing such a detailed and well thought out review.

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