TV Review: ‘War and Peace’

'War and Peace' looks good but
Courtesy Lifetime/A&E/History

It’s a truth learned the hard way: Don’t get bogged down on the Russian front. A new adaptation of “War and Peace,” set to debut on Lifetime, A&E and History simultaneously, is handsome and boasts a first-class cast, but it has failed to learn that lesson. When depicting peace, it is frequently inert.

The only real scenes with vigor and energy take place in battles between the Russian army and Napoleon’s forces, and the location shooting in Russia and elsewhere makes for some gorgeous interiors and exteriors. That said, if Paul Dano, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson and Lily James can’t quite liven up the contours of a classic novel, something has gone terribly awry.

This version of Tolstoy’s saga flits from one family of Russian aristocrats to the next so quickly that there’s no real time for memorable characterizations to take hold. Each character gets to display one trait, more or less: James Norton’s upper-class character is glum, Dano’s is naive, Rea plays is an oily upper-crust opportunist, and so on. Not that the actors aren’t generally capable in those modes, but there’s not much scope for deeper portrayals, given the superficiality of the storytelling. The aristocrats are decadent and conniving, except for the ones who are innocent or stupid, and despite the array of plots and love affairs that are laid out, this miniseries usually lacks a sense of spontaneity or momentum.

The whole endeavor congeals into a fur-trimmed blur featuring machinations among richly clad princes, princess and counts in lavish rooms or snowy wonderlands. The well-choreographed battles come as welcome breaks from the drawing-room tedium, in which servants — let alone peasants — are barely ever glimpsed.

If these networks are looking to get into the period-drama game in a major way now that “Downton Abbey” is drawing to a close, they’ll have to do better than this plodding four-part miniseries. It looks absolutely lovely: The Empire-waist gowns! The parties! The jaw-dropping palaces! There are undoubtedly treats for the eyes in almost every direction. As for the story, however, “War and Peace” feels like a long, dull slog to Moscow.

TV Review: 'War and Peace'

(Miniseries; Lifetime, A&E and History, Mon. Jan. 18, 9 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in Russia, Lithuania and Latvia by the BBC in association with the Weinstein Co., Lookout Point and BBC Worldwide.

Crew

Executive producers, Faith Penhale, Bethan Jones, Andrew Davies, Harvey Weinstein, Simon Vaughan, Robert Walak; producers, Julia Stannard; director, Tom Harper;  writer, Davies; director of photography, George Steel; production designer, Chris Roope; costume designer, Edward K. Gibbon; editor, Mark Eckersley; music, Martin Phipps; casting, Susie Figgis, Julie Harkin. 120 MIN

Cast

Paul Dano, Lily James, James Norton, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Stephen Rea, Brian Cox, Ken Stott, Kenneth Cranham, Jessie Buckley, Aisling Loftus, Jack Lowden, Tom Burke, Tuppence Middleton, Callum Turner, Adrian Edmondson, Greta Scacchi, Rebecca Front, Aneurin Bevan, Mathieu Kassovitz 

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  1. Carrie says:

    This review has to be a joke. I was captivated by every single scene. The performances were spot on and the scenery was breathtaking! BBC did a masterful, near perfect job in creating this miniseries… I honestly don’t see how it could be characterized as boring or slow.

  2. Laurie says:

    I disagree. I felt every character was true to Tolstoy’s novel and was so drawn in to the beautiful story. It was so well done.

  3. SCDObserver says:

    You see, that’s why we Brits must never get to make costume dramas with an American producer (Weinstein), because the American market seem to have an attention of a gnat. W&P just finished its run in the UK and many, VERY MANY of us were complaining that it was too short, too truncated. Yet, we blamed the writer for scripting and pacing this adaptation to suit the impatient American viewers. And still the American viewers (well, this review rather) find those ‘peace’ moments too long drawn. I mean, seriously…?

    • Daryle says:

      Please don’t assume the reviewer is representative of all Americans. I am an American and do believe I have more than the “attention [span] of a gnat.” I enjoyed War & Peace, and would actually have liked it more if it had been a bit longer. That said, you’re probably correct that Americans are so “action-crazy” (especially younger ones) that they have little patience for drama, especially some of the slower-paced dramas coming out of the UK. Great example was Wolf Hall, which I loved. But for me, the dialogue pace was SO slow; you just wanted to drag the sentences out of Mark Rylance. It seemed like he was following some unwritten rule of waiting 5 seconds before every utterance. I found myself nodding off sometimes, even though I was a big fan of the mini-series, especially the music.

  4. Anastasia says:

    I enjoyed the series, and many of the historical details, especially the way Russians make the sign of the cross, and the costumes. However, someone in the historical department neglected attention to a very important detail: Russians wear their wedding rings on their RIGHT hand. Throughout the miniseries, “married” couples were filmed with rings on their left hand. Wrong.

  5. sue-ellen says:

    This is a very late comment as I’ve just watched it . Had it recorded after Christmas but wtf is this article. The series is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars with love, sex, drugs etc and yet the tv critic here claims it will have to do more to live up to…….downton. where storylines included the rivalry of a local cricket tournament, local protests against a village statue and daisy doing maths exams. ?????

  6. The backdrop, scenery, costumes are beautiful but the music is terrible – like a constant dirge. Not a Balalaika anywhere.

  7. Kat says:

    Besides everything, what’s with filming this in and outside buildings in St. Petersburg that weren’t standing in the time of War and Peace?! How can they make characters dance waltz when walts wasn’t invented till 1830s? Some people really need a history lesson…

    • Ian says:

      Sorry, the waltz was being danced then. At the ball on the eve of the battle of Waterloo (1815), the guests danced the waltz and the polka. The waltz was widely danced in Vienna and the Austrian Empire from the 1780s. The pinnicle of the waltz was from the 1830s which is why people believe it wasn’t invented until then.

  8. Victoria says:

    What has happened to the BBC?! The 1972 production of this was outstanding – nothing will really come up to the standard of the book, but it did a damned good job of trying. These actors are terribly miscast, the costumes…did anyone even LOOK at period clothing before designing it?? And the script, good LORD.

    • SCDObserver says:

      I agree with you with reagards to the costumes, espeecially the women’s costumes (the male costumes they got it mostly right) but I must take exception with your assertion of the 1972 production being outstanding. It was rubbish. If people complained this version as being too British, then the 1972 was ten times worse than this production. And such stilted, clipped dialogues too!

  9. Laurence says:

    I have enjoyed watching the latest BBC version of War and Peace. The scenery and houses are magnificent and care has been taken with the interiors but then seems accuracy has flown out the window with costuming. The design and accuracy is poor, most especially of women’s dresses. There are some really odd looking dresses which are more 21st century than early 19th century, for instance some of those worn by Helena, Pierre’s wife. Why there is exaggeration in style and color when the actor can well portray the character I don’t know. The cut and choice of fabrics in some of the day dresses is also odd with Russian patterned fabrics, presumably to make them look more Russian. It seems that it is pandering to modern taste rather than let the period speak for itself. Downton Abbey more or less gets it right then why can’t costume designers of historical dramas do the same for those set in the early 19th century and before as they did once in the mid-1990s, for example BBC’s Pride and Prejudice.

    Then there is the military aspect of the mini-series. Starting with uniform, the wrong pattern Russian uniform is being worn in 1805, which might be forgivable as the different cut in women’s dress between 1805 and 1809, but to show Nikolai Rostov constantly wearing his pelisse on the wrong shoulder in the first three episodes, and in case worn with one arm in the sleeve on the wrong side is disgraceful. Another issue is the portrayal of the Battle of Austerlitz which shows up the lack of knowledge of Napoleonic warfare with it descending into a mix of units and individuals, and then where were the Austrians. It is also known as the battle of the Three Emperors. There is also a proliferation of ground explosions when cannon fired solid round shot. It seems the production did not have a military adviser. With the advent of CGI a far superior re-creation could have been made. The screen play is a good precis of the novel, so it is a pity more effort could not have been put into these aspects of the drama in what could have been a notable BBC classic.

  10. Denise says:

    The sound seemed muffled to me, like the sound effects (walking, crowd noise, carriages) seemed much more prominent than the dialog. Combined with the pronounced accents (I’m American) I found myself straining to understand what the characters were saying. With the plot moving so quickly I felt a sense of desperation trying to keep up while not being able to hear completely. Also, the video seemed “cheap” somehow, like it didn’t quite convince me that this was a long-ago historical period. More like a modern TV show (or even a soap opera). This is probably due to the “HD Video” comment made by Mark Baird, though I’m not fluent enough in such things to comment intelligently about them.

    I wanted so badly to love this, as I am a huge fan of historical drama, but this one doesn’t quite cut it for me. I’ll probably record the rest of the episodes and watch them at my leisure so I can rewind and listen to parts I can’t understand over, but I don’t plan on putting myself through another night of trying to watch it live.

    (By contrast, Downton Abbey looks gorgeous and sounds fine — I have no trouble at all understanding the accents.)

  11. embarassingly bad production, boring : stick to british history ; brings nothing to us

  12. Mark Baird says:

    I am enjoying the drama on the BBC but trying to overlook the obvious HD video photography which still never captures the atmosphere. Especially in the snow! Hard video photography just does not work on costume drama. Such a shame after all the other production values, which there are plenty.

  13. No contemporary movie version will ever, ever compare to the book. That said, if you want to skip the book, then I strongly recommend watching the magnificent Sergei Bondarchuk directed 1968 “War & Peace.” A mere seven hours long, it was filmed in (and financed by) the former USSR. Like watching a painting come to life, the cinematic tour de force won pretty much every award that year including the Oscar for “Best Foreign Language Picture.” Further, the Criterion Collection hard copy contains an amazing amount of extras…from historical to architectural. The “Making of” featurette is mind-blowing especially when you see how they choreographed the battle scenes.

    If you consider yourself a film aficionado, then it is some of the best binge-watching…ever.

    • Well put. Bondarchuk’s version from 1966 is pretty much the gold standard. The BBC version from 1972 comes a good second (easy to find on the net). In some places there, Andrew Hopkins almost outshines Sergei Bondarchuk as Pierre Bezukhov, but loses in the long run. Bondarchuk obviously had to make some concessions to Soviet ideology, such as skipping over Pierre’s connections with Freemasonry. On the other hand, the scene of the blessing of the troops before Borodino is an accurate, and moving, depiction of the Orthodox rites in question, presumably subsumed (or smuggled into the film) under a notion of Russianness. A related minor but all the more revealing detail is that in a church scene in the new BBC W&P some of the actors make the sign of the cross from left to right and not the other way round as Orthodox Christians do. If you can’t get that shibboleth right, you really don’t know much about depicting Russians on the screen.

    • Alexandra says:

      Also, if you do commit yourself to watching this great movie, please pay attention to the physical appearance of the cast, which matches the book perfectly. Someone in the production of this miniseries (casting director? director? producer?) forgot to read Tolstoy’s book, or at least maybe the first 100 pages of it where the characters’ appearance is described. All the main characters are horribly miscast. I love Lily James but she’s no Natasha, even if they’d let her be a brunette (her natural color, and an important part of Natasha’s look). A beefy 6’1″ hunk like Andrew Norton is nowhere near the part of refined upper-class aristocrat like Andrei Bolkonsky. And Paul Dano? Our very first encounter with Pierre in the book is a party where he is dared to take on a bear — and does. Paul Dano’s adolescent take on this role is laughable. The entire cast is cringeworthy. Give me a break!

  14. Interesting that the critic finds the “peace” scenes dull and the “war” scenes lively. I read the book several years ago and had the exact opposite reaction: To me, the drawing room conversations, family squabbles, and romantic intrigue were way more captivating than were Tolstoy’s endless, tedious descriptions of battle strategy, battle locations, battle battle blah blah blah.

  15. JonTolstoy says:

    To the writer… Read the book… Thats what it does.. It goes back and forward, its a deft, all consuming book…

    No T.V. series will do, YOU MUST be diligent and make it breathe over time, its not until book 2 when things get good, and after I think the second end is where alll things change…

    Again, read the book

  16. Natalie says:

    I think it’s pretty obvious that with 6 hours for a 1400 page book you can only get a very superficial retelling of the epic under the best of circumstances. With 10 mil pounds, BBC should have stuck to Dickens or other Brits.

  17. edith says:

    I honestly can’t see how a four (four? Is it organised in a different way for the US?) part “miniseries” (isn’t it just an adaptation? Why does it have to be reduced to this thing called a miniseries?) can be both too slow (“drawing room tedium”/”plodding”) and too fast(“flits too quickl). Is it possible we viewers have now reached the point where we cannot fill in anything for ourselves from the clues we are given? The aristocrats are not all decadent and conniving (None of the Bolkonsky family is decadent – just the opposite; none of the Rostov family is conniving) and Pierre may be innocent but he is far from stupid. As for the servants – they’re everything, but in the background, just as they’re supposed to be. If Tolstoy didn’t write scenes for the servants gathering in the kitchen to discuss their masters in the kitchen, then Davies can hardly add them.
    I just hope the “Downton Abbey” effect isn’t blighting our ability to appreciate the quality of what we are being shown in a deft script, which respects the intelligence of its audience, and some top-drawer acting. If the only scenes people now find interesting are ones in which a lot of violent action is going on, or soapy drawing room scenes, then let’s give up trying to do anything else.

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