The final episode of the BBC’s epic production of War & Peace aired tonight, and what a start to 2016 television. Everything about it was nothing less than stunning, and honestly it’s hard to describe the level of brilliance without experiencing it so absolutely watch it – please please please. As for my review: I’ll try my best to keep it spoiler free, but at the same time please understand that the original book by Leo Tolstoy was published in 1869.
War & Peace is indeed, somewhat like a soap opera. Scandals are many; war, money, death, love, heartbreak, and everyone is sleeping with each other – even occasionally incestually. The story spans over eight years, following the lives of three main families in the 1812 invasion of Russia by the French, lead by Napoleon. The infamously huge novel has been pared down to just six hours of television by acclaimed writer of shows such as House of Cards and Pride & Prejudice, Andrew Davies.
The final episode was nothing but stunning. A moving, and heroic final installment to the series with a longer than average episode to tie up all the ends. Though the start of the series was equally beautiful, it was a slightly slow start to get into. Trust me though, by the last episode you’ll be crying into your hands as you watch Paul Dano eat a potato. If you haven’t seen it, you have no idea.
The series has been shot beautifully. The direction is second to none, every scene interesting and nothing seems half arsed. The gorgeous on location backdrops of Russia, Lithuania and Latvia serve almost as another character in the story. The filming style brings a total freshness to the project which almost completely disconnects it from being a period drama.
What the BBC production did brilliantly was the adaptation of all the book’s implications. As well as refusing to skip over sex scenes that in the book were reduced to one sentence, this series confirms insinuated secrecies such as the siblings’ Helene and Anatole’s affair, which was far too scandalous to outright say back in 1869.
Lily James is really something special as the sweet Natasha Rostova, and her development from naiveté to finding her own strength and happiness was breathtaking. The series showed her maturing from a teenager to an adult in the midst of war, family struggles, personal relationships and her innocence being taken advantage of. Yet despite all this, she came to be truly happy with the people she truly loved, and it was a very satisfying end for our protagonist. Lily James is really very good at giving more to the sweet girl done wrong part: as seen in last year’s Cinderella. But this role brought glimpses of a feisty side, which I’m sure we’ll see lots more of in the upcoming Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (which I am very excited about).
James Norton is a triumph as Andrei Bolkonsky. To watch the Prince endure love, heartbreak and utter depression at the tail end of the series was heartbreaking itself to watch. Norton played him in such a three dimensional way, exposing his vulnerabilities without diminishing his heroic nature at all. In spite of all his struggles he was given a peaceful ending that gave audiences the closure they needed.
A favourite of mine, Paul Dano, brings life to the absolute sweetheart and perhaps the only consistently decent character in the story, Pierre Bezukhov. Perhaps everyone’s favourite character, Pierre is the sweet, heroic if slightly awkward illegitimate son of Russia’s wealthiest man. His only goal in life is to do good, and it’s his sad desperation to do so that makes watching him ache. It’s hard not to fall in love with the character or the actor, as his performance is honestly award worthy. His facial expressions alone can make you cry, and his vulnerable nature opposed to his desire to help makes him absolutely the star of the story.
Each of the three main leads hold the book very close to their hearts, each insisting that they consulted Tolstoy’s work every single day while shooting by reading the relevant passage prior to shooting each new scene. Paul Dano in particular I’d say completely makes the character his own.
Tuppence Middleton is gorgeously villainous as the seductive yet evil Helene Kuragina. Wife to Pierre Bezukhov, she is socially ambitious and sexually alluring, who uses her sexual attractions to earn social power in high-society circles. she is absolutely the character you love to hate, and her eventual downfall was just as she deserved. Middleton plays her amazingly and it’s shocking to think of her as the same woman who played the troubled blonde Riley Blue in the Netflix Original series Sense8. Callum Turner is also brilliant playing the role of her snake like brother Anatole: who yes, does sleep with Helene. Gross.
The stellar cast also featured greats such as Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent, Greta Sacchi, Adrian Edmondson with Mathieu Kassovitz as Napoleon Bonaparte. As if it couldn’t get any better.
And the COSTUMES. For the life of me I cannot find out who was the costumer for the series, so if you do know or find out please let me know because they were stunning. Surprisingly, from all the beautiful costumes the piece that sticks out most for me is Helene’s final white gown – which will surely become iconic for reason you will understand if you have seen it. The gorgeous gowns are matched by the soldiers uniform in levels of detail and beauty, with what I’m sure is historical accuracy mixed with a contemporary richness to it.
War and Peace is quite a hefty story to take in, but this stunning BBC series makes it at least as easy as possible to understand without having to dumb it down at all. The gorgeous cinematography, committed performances from the actors and the moving score all combine to perfectly create the sense of emotion in every part of the story.