Judge Clark Douglas will take "Peace" for $500, Alex.
"War and Peace is about everything that counts: love and battle, terror and desire, life and death. It's a book that you don't just read, you live."—Simon Schama
When producer David Conroy determined to create a lengthy adaptation of War and Peace for the BBC in the early 1970s, many must have thought him a fool. Yes, creating a 20-part, 15-hour adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel would be incredibly difficult from an artistic and financial point of view. However, it also must have seemed a little pointless at the time, as the critically-acclaimed six-hour Russian version of War and Peace had been generally accepted as the "definitive version" only five years earlier. Thirty-five years after Conroy's television presentation of the great novel originally aired on the BBC, how does it hold up? Is this epic and stirring tale given justice, or was the production merely an overlong vanity project? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let us consider the case.
Facts of the Case
Twenty 45-minute episodes are spread across five discs. As War and Peace is such a vast, complex story that would be quite difficult to summarize, I offer you the episode descriptions written by Andy Priestner. This will also give those who have read the novel an idea of what elements have been represented here. Warning: some spoilers are included in the following descriptions, so if you do not wish to know what happens, skip ahead to the next section.
"Sounds of War"
"Skirmish at Schongraben"
"A Letter and Two Proposals"
"A Beautiful Tale"
"Leave of Absence"
"Men of Destiny"
"Fortunes of War"
"Of Life and Death"
"The Road to Life"
When I was in my late teens, I took on the task of reading the great Leo Tolstoy novel this lengthy mini-series is based on. When I finally finished the book, there was an overwhelming sense of having just returned from a long journey. I felt as if I had truly been swept away into another world, that I had spent a great deal of time there, and that I had gotten to meet some very compelling characters. This BBC adaptation of War and Peace managed to recreate those very same feelings within me. The series earns every last minute of its 15-hour running time, never spending too much (or too little) time with any particular subplot or character.
At the time of its creation, War and Peace was one of the most ambitious projects the BBC had ever attempted to undertake. Unlike many other BBC productions of literary classics (which often feel and look like stage plays), War and Peace was a project that needed to be epic in scope. Hundreds of extras would be required for the many war scenes, grand sets would need to be designed for the lavish ballroom sequences, and a large handful of capable actors would need to be up to the task of keeping characters interesting over the course of a very, very long story. David Conroy liked the cinematic scope of the previous adaptations (the three and a half hour 1950s version with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn and the six-hour Russian version from the 1960s), but he felt that neither film had been able to successfully capture many of the nuances and smaller elements Conroy admired so much from the novel. Conroy's expansive, comprehensive take on War and Peace not only does justice to the historical majesty of Tolstoy's tale, but also to the novel's introspective and thoughtful tone.
War and Peace is certainly compelling for its very accurate and engaging portrait of the conflict between Russia and France during the early 1800s. It's also quite interesting in the way it examines the class system, the societal relationship between the rich families of nobility and the simple peasants. The manners and rules of marriage and romance in 19th-century Russia are examined carefully as well, to great effect. However, I feel that the extra element that places War and Peace above so many other great historical novels (and in this case, above so many film and television adaptations of those novels) is the way Tolstoy examines all of these events though a philosophical lens. Conroy's adaptation successfully attempts to do the same, never shying away from dropping the action or the plot in favor of taking time to listen in on a lengthy, ponderous conversation between characters attempting to discover the bigger picture in life.
This particular quality comes most often courtesy of the story's main character, Pierre Bezuhov. Pierre is a man who never seems to be particularly content in life, and always seems to be searching for his purpose. The spiritual journey Pierre takes over the course of the story is handled masterfully, and inspires many of the best scenes in War and Peace. Pierre's life changes are made very convincing thanks to a superb performance from a young Anthony Hopkins, who demonstrates what a remarkably mature actor he was even at this stage. Hopkins subtly moves from place to place in Pierre's story with natural ease, whether he is playing Pierre as a nervous and fumbling young man, a paranoid conspiracy theorist, or a peaceful philosopher. Hopkins won a BAFTA for his performance here, quite deservedly. Pierre's journey is perhaps so convincing and moving because it was a journey taken by Tolstoy himself. Many of the elements in the lives of the character and the author are the same: the failed first marriage, the early life struggles, the attempts to find purpose in life…when Pierre ultimately finds peace and contentment, we believe it, and that is quite probably because Pierre's story has been told by a man who found peace in a very similar manner.
Another key role in War and Peace is that of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, played with reserved class by Alan Dobie. Andrei is one of Pierre's close friends, but he chooses to deal with life in a very different way, simply doing his duty in as professional and painless manner as possible. He doesn't struggle much with the challenges of life, because he has closed off his emotions and feelings to the point of being nearly numb to his surroundings. Dobie offers a performance that may seem a bit wooden from a purely physical perspective (his face and voice rarely seem to change expression), but Dobie seems to have dug very deep into the part internally. He is very convincing as Andrei, and always seems as if he is living the part, not playing it.
Angela Down is very nuanced in an impressive turn as Andrei's sister Maria, and Anthony Jacobs offers a wildly intense performance as the father of the family (perhaps too wild, but I still liked the performance). Rupert Davies and Faith Brook demonstrate very believable chemistry as the financially incompetent Count and Countess Rostov, a generally nice couple who are parents to some of the other key characters in War and Peace. Sylvester Morand plays their son, Nikolai, a very intense young man of great conviction (if not imagination). The daughter of the family is Natasha, the central female character of the story (more on her later). The Rostovs also have raised their niece Sonya (Joanna David), a young woman who is deeply in love with Nikolai (much to the horror of Countess Rostov, who knows that such a marriage would not bring any extra money into the family).
There are also some real-life military figures that play a part in the grand scheme of War and Peace. David Swift gives an excellent performance as Napoleon Bonaparte, a character given a very interesting arc over the course of the story. At first, I was surprised to see the way Swift played Napoleon as nothing less than a grand and brilliant saint, suggesting the mythical version of the character rather than the real-life one. However, as War and Peace progresses, we see Napoleon's grandeur slowly transform into monstrous egomania, and Swift transforms himself from a noble hero into a repulsive toad. Frank Middlemass gives us the other side of historical perspective with his portrayal of the one-eyed Russian General Kutuzov. Middlemass is very good in the role, but doesn't have nearly as much to do as Swift.
Unfortunately, the DVD doesn't look too great, though it's not terrible. The outdoor scenes/battle scenes in particular seem to be a bit damaged, with lots of scratches everywhere. The indoor scenes still look flat and mundane (typical for a DVD featuring a 1970's television production), but are generally free of flecks and so on. The worst instance comes during a couple minutes midway through the final episode, when the picture looks like it was taken from a very poor video tape source. That's the one single instance where the video is distractingly bad, taking the viewer out of the world of War and Peace (thankfully it doesn't come during a particularly crucial moment). Audio is unremarkable, but perfectly acceptable for the most part. The exceptions come during some of the end credit sequences, when the music sounds garbled. There aren't any extras to speak of on the disc, but a very helpful and informative 44-page booklet is provided that has a lot of interesting information about the production.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though most of the performances are very impressive, I must take exception to the casting of Morag Hood in the key role of Natasha. Hood certainly isn't a terrible actress; she's probably as capable as some of the others here. However, it takes someone special to play the role of Natasha, and Hood doesn't have the indescribable quality required. Natasha is a character who unknowingly enchants and breaks the heart of nearly every man that enters her life. She is a woman who can somehow instantly melt a man as closed-off as Prince Andrei. Audrey Hepburn certainly had that element in the (otherwise inferior) American version of War and Peace, and Hood just doesn't. She's also not particularly effective in the early scenes where she is required to play a 13-year-old girl…she attempts to achieve the effect by giggling and bouncing around as much as possible. However, while we don't believe the "enchanting" quality that she is supposed to have, she isn't incompetent as an actress (particularly playing a woman her own age), so she does not do anything to damage most of her scenes.
There's also something that may just be enough to ruin this superb production for a lot of viewers out there, though it certainly didn't for me: War and Peace, a story that is as Russian as they come, has never seemed quite so British before. While the acting here is all excellent, much of the behavior and mannerisms seem much more English than Russian. This is not helped by the fact that no one attempts a Russian accent…well, Hopkins and Dobie seem to try one on every once in a while, just as a quick reminder, but everyone here sounds very British and acts very British (Count and Countess Rostov could very easily be mistaken for Mr. and Mrs. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice). Those seeking authenticity in this department would be better-served seeking out the (very good) Russian version.
Despite the few notable flaws, I must say that I feel this is the very best version of War and Peace that has been made to date and it's hard to imagine anyone topping it. Despite the fact that it runs 15 hours long, it never seems bloated. War and Peace is an immensely engaging and satisfying production, and my hat is off to the BBC for having the courage to fund such an ambitious and intelligent literary adaptation. For those who seek out great adaptations of great novels, this sweeping series should be considered essential viewing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• 44-Page Booklet
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