Review: War & Peace (2016)

Directed by: Tom Harper | 360 minutes | drama, history, romance, war | Actors: Paul Dano, James Norton, Lily James, Adrian Edmondson, Aisling Loftus, Greta Scacchi, Jack Lowden, Tuppence Middleton, Aneurin Barnard, Jessie Buckley, Olivia Ross, Tom Burke, Jim Broadbent, Callum Turner, Rebecca Front, Stephen Rea, Chloe Pirrie, Mathieu Kassovitz, Matthew Stagg, Emily Taaffe, Gillian Anderson, Rory Keenan

Twelve hundred and twenty-five. Written in letters, the number of pages that the original version of “War and Peace” has appears to be even more than in numbers. Later versions have even more pages. The novel by Leo Tolstoy (the writer himself preferred to speak of an epic in prose form) dates from 1869 and deals with the French invasion of Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century and its consequences for Tsarist society, told from the perspective of five aristocratic families. “War and Peace” is considered one of the highlights of world literature and is praised, among other things, because the story, despite its enormous size, is still one whole, with no less than 580 characters, of which quite a few actually existed. Tolstoy switches effortlessly from family life in the aristocratic neighborhoods of Moscow to the headquarters of the French Emperor Napoleon and from the court of Tsar Alexander the First to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino.

It seems like an impossible task to film such an extensive story, yet several filmmakers ventured into the feat. For example, in 1956 King Vidor made a 208-minute version with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda in the lead roles, among others. The Russians released “Voyna i Mir” in 1966 and in 2007 there was a mini-series starring Brenda Blethyn, Clémence Poésy and Malcolm McDowell. After the success of “Downton Abbey”, the British state broadcaster BBC saw Tolstoy’s literary classic as a new costume drama with which to score and so there is now “War and Peace” (2016). In six parts (the series takes eight hours in total), writer Andrew Davies (known for ‘House of Cards’ and the 1995 miniseries’ Pride and Prejudice’) and director Tom Harper (‘Peaky Blinders’,’ The Woman in Black: Angel of Death ‘(2015)) guides the audience through the troubles of the Rostov, Bolkonsky and Kuragin families at the time of the French invasion of Russia, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their version of Tolstoy’s masterpiece is certainly entertaining, beautifully crafted and with a top cast in the ranks. But this miniseries doesn’t quite show why “War and Peace” is one of the greatest novels of all time.

The saga begins in Russia in 1805. When Pierre (Paul Dano), Natasha (Lily James) and Andrey (James Norton) are introduced to the viewer, they are young, eager and ambitious. Despite growing up in luxury, they look for the meaning of their life. Kind-hearted, but socially clumsy Pierre is the illegitimate son of Russia’s richest man. In him lies a true do-gooder who would like to tell the truth to the devoured aristocratic elite. Natasha is a vibrant personality, looking for true love. And the handsome, brave Andrey looks for a higher purpose, in order to shake off his frustrations about the superficiality of the environment in which he grows up. While trying to live out their dreams, the armies of the French Emperor Napoleon (Mathieu Kassovitz) are approaching the Russian border; Russia is about to change forever, and so are the protagonists and their families. Between the companies for wrestling, Pierre, Natasha and Andrey also struggle with love, which puts family ties on edge.

“War and Peace” has received critical acclaim and is largely justified. This miniseries is a feast to watch, with sumptuous costumes, stunning sets and a mouth-watering cast (which includes Jim Broadbent, Brian Cox, Gillian Anderson, Stephen Rea, Tuppence Middleton, Greta Scacchi, among the aforementioned. Aneurin Barnard, Ken Stott and Adrian Edmondson). But how do you reduce a fist-lengthy novel to an eight-hour miniseries, without losing the depth and richness of the source material? That is almost impossible, we see that again here. Initially, the experienced screenwriter Davies still manages to divide main and side issues into the correct proportions, but at about half the time the story breaks through into the countless love relationships that the main characters enter into with each other and then again not. They are intrigues that are more reminiscent of a soap opera than a classic from world literature. Had cut into that, instead of in the depth of the characters (women in particular are deprived) or in the underlying, major themes (in this case Tolstoy’s message that history is made by many small individuals en not by a handful of key figures, and the loss of the established, aristocratic order).

Cut Tolstoy into an eight-hour miniseries; it doesn’t turn out quite as the makers had imagined. Great acting, especially by Dano (who also has the most interesting role, with the most content) and a production that impresses with its pomp and circumstance cannot completely disguise the shortcomings here. This miniseries has a promising start, but falls halfway through a maze of affairs and romantic hassle, shattering that promise from the beginning like a bubble. It is mainly because of this that “War and Peace” turns out to be less memorable at the end of the line than the makers had hoped in advance.

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