Le sigh. Finally.
A relatively new period drama that is thought-provoking and intensely satisfying. You may be familiar with Russian author Leo Tolstoy from his Nineteenth Century novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. This mini-series adapts the former into an eight-part sweeping drama, which was first broadcast on BBC One, and then in America simultaneously on A&E, Lifetime, and the History Channel as four two-hour episodes.
I remember when it first aired. I got 2.5 episodes in and was engaged by the beautiful filming and good acting, but it wasn’t enough to counteract having to sit for two solid hours late at night and watch some morally questionable (truly shocking) things happen. Now, I am a dork. I was on Eastern time then, and this was pushing my bedtime far too late, and you basically have to be Downton Abbey to make that worth it for me.
But I had always regretted stopping it. I couldn’t forget it and kept telling my sister about it in that annoyingly nostalgic way. Then it popped up on Hulu (in doable 45 minute episodes), and I called it: we’re watching it.
Warning: there is a relationship so shocking at first that you’ll need to collect yourself for a few minutes. Then again, some similar stuff happens in Genesis, so I guess we’re a namby pamby generation(?) And there was something done by one of the characters (Andrei, played by James Norton) that made me wonder if I was going to like anybody.
But I’m happy to say that I was wrong. War and Peace is a triumph. You just have to watch until the third episode to see that. Now initially, it was James Norton who brought me back. His portrayal of the brooding and jaded Prince Andrei Bolkonsky was so well-done and different from any role I’ve seen him play that I was impressed. I hadn’t realized his depth as an actor until War and Peace.
Now, James Norton is…rather attractive, and never more so than here (brunette works, James!). But it was Paul Dano, who plays the initially feckless Count Bezukhov, or Pierre, who had me googling the morning after I finished the series. He was a sensation. I’ve not seen that level of fine acting and subtlety in a really long time.
We’re not supposed to fall in love with the un-hot Pierre, but we do. It’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever seen. When it hits you that he’s the male lead, it’s like a ton of bricks. To portray someone like Pierre (a sometimes dufus, sometimes deeply thoughtful individual, always lost, until he is found) in such a sensitive way was so far ahead of Tolstoy’s time that you instantly see why people rave about him as an author.
I won’t give away too much of the plot, but, basically, you follow five aristocratic families during a little less than a decade surrounding Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The series is a gem for its historical insights alone. I mean, I didn’t know that Russia’s situation during the invasion was very comparable to the American South during the Civil War, did you? I guess I had pictured all of Napoleon’s victims dancing in ballrooms like Almack’s with only a vague notion of what was happening “over there”.
But what truly stood out for me, and what seems so rare these days in British period drama, is that the characters did not deviate from their moral codes. I’m not saying they were angels – most were NOT. I’m saying there was never anything that happened that had me scratching my head and thinking another person had just invaded the character’s body a la Poldark. Nothing was done purely for shock value. Sometimes (often) you will be shocked, but after thinking for a moment, you’ll realize, “Oh, yeah. That was in him all along. I just didn’t see it.” It is character exploration at its finest. To be fair, it is precisely the kind of literature I like: thought-provoking, deep, a little romantic, honest, with serious events, deep feelings, bittersweet ending that still is sweet and gives a huge payoff. It might not strike you the same, but hey, at least I can promise you won’t feel like you wasted your time.
Shout-out to Lily James, who plays the wistful Natasha Rostova. But that really isn’t fair because the whole cast deserves endless accolades!