Dvd

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Michael Bodey Twit­ter: @michael­bodey

The thought of a BBC adap­ta­tion of Leo Tol­stoy’s mam­moth novel War and Peace filled DVD Let­ter­box with equal parts trep­i­da­tion and ex­cite­ment.

The key rea­son for trep­i­da­tion is clear: how does one cap­ture 1000 pages de­scribed by Tol­stoy as “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a his­tor­i­cal chron­i­cle” in one, rel­a­tively short-run, TV se­ries? The rea­sons for ex­cite­ment were equally clear. It is a pe­riod piece that, with a $20 mil­lion bud­get, could be, if noth­ing else, a rav­ish­ing vis­ual feast. Be­sides, An­drew Davies adapted it.

Davies is a tele­vi­sion writer whose ac­com­plish­ments stretch way back. His name is all over the US se­ries House of Cards, be­cause he wrote the sem­i­nal Bri­tish minis­eries of the same name on which this Netflix se­ries was loosely based.

Af­ter that 1990 se­ries, Davies be­came the go-to guy for shrewd Bri­tish adap­ta­tions of clas­sic pe­riod dra­mas — in­clud­ing Van­ity Fair, Mid­dle­march, Pride and Prej­u­dice, Sense & Sen­si­bil­ity, Lit­tle Dor­rit and Bleak House — while also cre­at­ing orig­i­nal TV dra­mas and adapt­ing the Brid­get Jones film se­ries.

Even bet­ter, it be­came known Davies might junk the trou­bled fi­nal seg­ment of Tol­stoy’s novel, which most agree could have done with­out its fi­nal 100 or so pages of me­an­der­ing.

DVD Let­ter­box hasn’t yet reached the con­clu­sion of this six-hour-plus se­ries, but can con­clude my fears were un­jus­ti­fied. This War & Peace (MA15+, BBC, 370min, $29.95) is not only a grand en­ter­tain­ment, it be­longs in the up­per­most ech­e­lon of pe­riod dra­mas on Bri­tish TV.

And that is a big cat­e­gory, even if it of­ten leaves this viewer cold with its man­ner­isms, its in­abil­ity to con­nect with a mod­ern au­di­ence and the be­lief that look­ing “just so” is achieve­ment enough.

The credit de­serves to go to Davies, be­cause he has wran­gled the mon­ster into some­thing lu­cid, emo­tional and in­volv­ing when it so eas­ily could have been mere con­fus­ing eye candy.

To be fair, the se­ries rat­tles along try­ing to crunch the ex­po­si­tion and then catch up with lead­ing di­a­logue, and some fine ac­tors ap­pear to walk on re­gally and then act as adorn­ments (Gil­lian An­der­son and Jim Broad­bent come to mind). But the se­ries be­comes a show­case for the younger ac­tors. Lily James ( Pride and Prej­u­dice and Zom­bies) is won­der­ful as the eter­nally dis­ap­pointed Natasha Ros­tova and Paul Dano con­sol­i­dates his fine re­cent per­for­mance in Love & Mercy with an­other, as Pierre Bezukhov. New­comer Jessie Buck­ley (as Marya Bolkon­skaya) and James Nor­ton (as An­drei Bolkon­sky) are also ter­rific.

Of course, it is also a TV se­ries, so it can’t ex­plore the nu­ances of the Rus­sian aris­toc­racy be­ing threat­ened by Napoleon or Tol­stoy’s philo­soph­i­cal tan­gents. But it’s as good as we could have hoped.

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