This past Christmas, I received an opulent Folio Society edition of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace from my father. I spent the next month setting out on what fans of the novel refer to as “The Long March.” Even at a brisk pace of 50 pages a day, it still took me most of January to finish. By the end a blanket of deep fatigue had settled upon me, leaving me drained and exhausted. War and Peace isn’t just a notoriously long novel, it’s a serious personal investment of time, effort and intellectual energy. Ostensibly about the fate of five aristocratic Russian families living in the early 19th century, the novel is nothing less than an attempt to recontextualize one of the most important moments in modern history—Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia. Tolstoy didn’t even consider it a novel, saying “[It’s] not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.”
I read it blissfully unaware that at the same time the BBC was releasing a new miniseries based on it. Directed by Tom Harper, it was a sprawling 6-part adaptation that grabbed rave reviews all across the board. Naturally, I wanted to see if the BBC’s version did it justice. Thanks to a recent Blu-ray release courtesy of The Weinstein Company, I was able to give the whole 357 minute shebang a proper watch.
Attempting to summarize War and Peace is equal parts herculean and preposterous. Even without the hundreds of pages of philosophy and historiography, the reader must still contend with dozens, if not hundreds, of named characters falling in and out of love, in and out of battle, into the depths of despair and loss and the heights of joy and enlightenment. For sanity’s sake I will try to relate only the events and characters given priority by the miniseries.
There is Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano), bastard son of a wealthy nobleman. When his father unexpectedly legitimizes him on his deathbed, Pierre becomes Count Bezukhov and prey for the very worst elements of high society. Painfully clumsy and awkward, he vacillates between bouts of bacchanalian debauchery and remorseless self-hatred before finding salvation at the hands of Freemasonry and a renewed determination to help his fellow man. More than any other character, Pierre embodies the spiritual yearnings so central to War and Peace and the rest of Tolstoy’s canon. Dano proves himself the best cast of all the actors and actresses; the bumbling and foolish Pierre might be the part he was born to play. His performance in the last act when Pierre finds himself at the front lines of the Battle of Borodino and later prisoner to the French during Napoleon’s retreat from Russia is the most haunting he’s been since the climax of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).
There is Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton), a Russian officer stagnated by disillusionment. Ambitious and cynical, he is the foil to Pierre’s naive idealism. Battered by the loss of his wife to childbirth and critically wounded at the disastrous Battle of Austerlitz, he begins a doomed romance with the imprudent Natasha Rostova (Lily James). Natasha, the only truly striking female character in the book, is fumbled both by the show-runners—she unceremoniously drops out for long stretches of the miniseries—and James. Despite the many, many faults of King Vidor’s 1956 cinematic adaptation of the book, his casting of Audrey Hepburn as Natasha was a coup. Doe-eyed and lean, Hepburn brought a florid physicality to the role no doubt influenced by her study of ballet as a teenager. Here was the Natasha as envisioned by Tolstoy: foolish and dreamy, impulsive and petulant. James, an otherwise wonderful actress, has neither the physical presence nor the emotional weight to make Natasha seem anything other than the third wheel in an unfortunate love triangle.
There is Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden), Natasha’s brother who serves as a Hussar in the Russian army. Vainglorious in ambition, he proves a coward on the battlefield and a failure as a son, losing most of the family’s fortune in a game of cards. Lowden does an excellent job capturing Nikolai’s grotesqueness in his lowest moments. The resolution of his character arc feels incomplete; the miniseries sees him more as a prop for romantic intrigues and melodrama than as the troubled young man who finds salvation for himself and his family through self-sacrifice.
Finally there is General Mikhail Kutuzov (Brian Cox). Idolized by Tolstoy for his command of the Russian military during Napoleon’s invasion, Kutuzov was one of the most controversial generals of his time. Widely reviled for his decisions to abandon the capital city of Moscow to Napoleon without a fight and to not counter-attack once the French began to suffer the effects of the Russian winter, Tolstoy was instrumental in his reevaluation among military historians as a genius. Cox is a revelation—war-wearied and fossilized, he exudes the resigned air of the unheeded oracle, particularly in an early sequence where he is forced into a disastrous attack at Borodino by the idiotic Tsar Alexander I (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). (As an aside, let me mention how odd Tolstoy’s glorification of Kutuzov as the chess-master behind Russia’s victory over Napoleon seems in light of Tolstoy’s adamant rejection of the idea that the decisions of individual “Great Men” can alter the course of history.)
Despite the miniseries’ massive length, I can’t help but question some of the edits the show-runners made, especially in light of some of the scenes they did include. Gone is Pierre’s quest to assassinate Napoleon, but time is still made for Vassily Denisov (Thomas Arnold) awkwardly proposing to Natasha. Pierre’s introduction to Freemasonry, his life’s turning point in the book, is treated as a perfunctory development and largely glossed over. While Natasha feels underdeveloped, it devotes a surprising amount of time (and several suggestive partially-nude scenes) to Hélène Kuragina (Tuppence Middleton), Pierre’s duplicitous and unfaithful wife.
For the most part, the BBC miniseries does Tolstoy’s story justice. But therein lies its greatest flaw: it’s only focused on the story. Gone are all of Tolstoy’s ruminations on history, philosophy, and religion. Gone are his observations on the hypocrisies of the Russian aristocracy such as their infatuation with French culture and use of the French language even while Moscow burns to the ground under Napoleon’s eye. While more time is spent on the spiritual hungers of Tolstoy’s protagonists than in Vidor’s film (wherein they were virtually nonexistent) they still take a backseat to romantic shenanigans. For Tolstoy the romances worked hand-in-hand with Napoleon’s invasion to test and temper the spiritual fortitude of his characters. For Harper they are largely separated. The result is the miniseries becoming top-heavy and bloated. Much of the middle languishes in a tedium of soap-opera melodramatics. This is helped in no small part by the miniseries’ unwillingness to visually differentiate between many of the characters. I can’t count the number of times I mixed up Andrei with Nikolai or Natasha with her cousin Sonya (Aisling Loftus) and Andrei’s sister Maria (Jessie Buckley).
The BBC’s War and Peace is a gorgeous, lavish affair with magnificent production values and (mostly) top-tier performances. Many of the sequences—Andrei’s first wounding on the battlefield, Pierre blundering his way through Borodino and his duel with the despicable Dolokhov (Tom Burke), the fire of Moscow, the multitudinous balls and society get-togethers—are triumphs. Without truly exploring the book’s spiritual core and Tolstoy’s intellectual arguments, all we have is the polished surface of one of the greatest works of literature in history.