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.