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.