The new adaptation of War and Peace aired earlier this year, and I’ve been meaning to review it. I’ve never read the book by Leo Tolstoy, but I think even without reading it, the miniseries is a good primer for anyone who might want an introduction to Russian history in that era. There are minor spoilers in this review.
The miniseries starts in 1805 and is focused on the lives and loves of five noble families. I’m not sure if the novel reads like this, but the miniseries feels like a family saga of sorts. The focuses is mostly on three young protagonists – Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano) who is the illegitimate son of a rich count, and Pierre’s closest friends: Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton), and Countess Natasha Rostova (Lily James). While Pierre, Andrei, and Natasha try to find meaning in their lives and discover who they are, the Napoleonic Wars rage on, with Russia increasingly at odds with France.
Russia might be on the brink of war, but the young nobles spend a lot of their time drinking, gossiping, and plotting their way higher up the social ladder. Pierre wants do to something extraordinary with his life, but he isn’t sure what that is. He’s full of idealism, but he’s easily distracted. So he drinks, gambles, and pines over Princess Hélène Kuragina (Tuppence Middleton), a beautiful, scheming heartbreaker who at first doesn’t pay Pierre any attention. Andrei is so stifled by aristocratic life he’s willing to leave his pregnant wife with his father and sister so he can join the army. He wants to go to war not because he hates Napoleon, but because he’s sick of balls, gossip, and aristocratic life. Natasha is kindhearted, impulsive, and as she gains more and more admirers she yearns to find the type of true love her brother Nikolai (Jack Lowden) and her cousin Sonya Rostova (Aisling Loftus) have found.
What I liked about this adaptation was that you can tell they’re trying to make it relatable to younger viewers. Sometimes this is cheesy but I liked how each character was portrayed. They all have hopes and dreams. But, their flaws keep happiness out of their reach. It’s interesting to watch how each character faces the horrors of war, while also navigating their own internal struggles.
Unfortunately, what I like most about War and Peace is kind of its biggest problem. The character flaws sometimes get annoying. I get that they’re supposed to be young, but some of the characters are hopelessly naïve. I forgive that somewhat with the female characters because they’re kept very sheltered while the more worldly male characters can party, drink, and have sex with far fewer consequences. But some of the male characters are TSTL. Pierre especially. He can’t see how money grubber people around him are. It’s like, dude – these people are obviously gold-diggers, use your brain. Grow a back bone! I get that he wants to do something for his fellow man, but that doesn’t mean he has to trust obviously horrid people. I really liked how sweet and innocent Pierre is, but I also wanted to shake him. A lot.
Full confession here: I decided to watch War and Peace because of Tom Burke. If you’re a Tom Burke fan you’re going to be disappointed because he isn’t in it that much. Though I really liked his performance. He’s kind of a jerkface, but he was also kind of sexy. I should feel ashamed, but it’s Tom Burke, so whatever 😛
The other problem is that there are lots of characters to keep track, and it gets confusing trying to remember who is who and how they’re connected. It took me a while to figure out Andrei and the very pious but persecuted Princess Marya Bolonskaya (Jessie Buckley) are brother and sister. Both were among my favorite characters but it took me ages to figure out how they were connected. Maybe it was my own concentration issues, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other viewers had this problem too.
The technical details were a bit of a mixed bag. War and Peace was partially shot in St Petersburg and there are beautiful shots of The Winter Palace and Catherine Palace which gives the show a sense of place and grandeur. The costumes were hit or miss though. Some of them seemed pretty period accurate while some of them just go off the rails – backless gowns, one shoulder gowns, gowns that look more like bathrobes. People with a much better eye for costume detail are probably going to cringe through a lot of this so you’ve been warned.
All in all, I think War and Peace is a worthwhile commitment. There are some disturbing battle scenes. But it’s very emotional and though slow and confusing in parts, it really hits its stride about halfway through. I’d give this one a B-.