WHAT IT’S ABOUT Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, and this adaptation, chronicles the fortunes of five aristocratic families — the Bezukhovs, Bolkonskys, Drubetskoys, Kuragins and Rostovs — beginning in 1805, seven years before Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Count Bezukhov (Paul Dano) comes into a great fortune, and an arranged marriage to Helene (Tuppence Middleton). His friend, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton), seeks glory in battle — that doesn’t go particularly well. Meanwhile, Natasha Rostova (Lily James) and Princess Marya Bolkonskaya (Jessie Buckley) are bystanders to history, but — like everyone else — not for long. This BBC film is written by Andrew Davies.
MY SAY Good, old “War and Peace,” that magnificent doorstop and show business siren for a century and longer. There have been plays, movies, miniseries and even a musical (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”), each of which inevitably confronted the daunting reality before them: “War and Peace” is long. Also complicated, with clashing armies, and clashing lovers, and their exploits deeply, deeply chronicled. Critic Michael Wood once (admiringly) called Tolstoy the “world’s best secretary,” meaning he collected as much information as needed to reflect the great sprawl of human life.
Now enter this latest version, which not only has to make its own sense of that sprawl but stand shoulder to shoulder with all those other versions. It’s a wonder that it does, and then some. This film’s secret weapon is Andrew Davies — the adapter’s adapter (“Vanity Fair” and “Bleak House,” to name just two of his many credits) and one of the finest writers working in television. Davies’ dialogue feels so organic to the characters it’s written for that it seems almost to bond to them, as naturally as if it was their skin or hair color. Actors in Davies’ production invariably rise to the level of the words placed before them. They certainly do here.
The cast is first-rate, with well-respected actors strategically placed in key but minor roles (Steven Rhea, Jim Broadbent). Dano joins a long, illustrious line of Count Pierre Bezukhovs (Henry Fonda, Anthony Hopkins) and brings something fresh to the role. As a character, Bezukhov is principled, self-aware and utterly bewildered by the world around him. Dano also makes him human and relatable.
BOTTOM LINE Judging from the first night — which was made available for review — this is a winner.