Bring on the vodka and fur coats: BBC is taking us to Russia circa 1805, and we will never want to come back. The network takes on an ambitious project when producing a four-part miniseries based on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” one of the world’s most renowned literary epics that would inevitably spur rampant criticism with any cinematic interpretation. But, as the low basses of Russian singers echo through the astonishing landscape of the opening scene, it’s clear that the undertaking is well worth the risk. Backed by an award-winning cast and a grandiose budget to match the large-scale production, “War and Peace” is unlike anything else on television: powerful and thrilling, the miniseries is an artistic masterpiece.
Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” has stood the test of literary time by capturing the complex stories of the characters in a way that, however far removed from the modern day, is never truly foreign. The miniseries is able to bring the universal themes of love, power and glory to life in part due to the fantastic cast. Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) perfectly embodies the lively and outspoken Natasha Rostova, the daughter of a well-off aristocratic family whose hopelessly romantic endeavors lead her to a messy love triangle. Beautiful and strikingly optimistic, James’s performance makes it impossible to look away. Meanwhile, Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”) captures the affections of the audience from his first, clumsy appearance on screen as Pierre Bezukhov, and James Norton (“Happy Valley”) shines as the brooding and philosophical Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.
Yet what truly sets “War and Peace” apart from other well-regarded period dramas like “Downton Abbey” is the one-of-a-kind cinematography. To stay true to the authenticity of the novel, the production was filmed in various Eastern European locations, including Russia, Latvia and Lithuania. As a result, the early 19th century blooms on screen. The viewers feel acutely present as the Russian forces battle against the Napoleonic armies, risking their own lives as the soldiers are bombarded with fire. Inside the lavish palaces of the aristocratic Russian families, the sumptuousness oozes and spills over into a glamorous visual. Gold-plated ballrooms and exquisite costumes decorate the screen, and the real world slips away. Rarely is a TV series so aesthetically beautiful that it is able to capture the audience’s attention with such unbreakable strength that reality, for a moment, ceases to exist.
Embellishing the visual component is a wonderful musical score developed by Martin Phipps (“Woman in Gold”), able to create passion and heartache in the smallest nuances of the series. The viewer is instantly placed in the story’s virtual reality as Russian folk melodies are perfectly synched with the pounding of war drums, and despair is mimicked with just a few precise notes. While Tolstoy’s saga was able to capture a culture through words, the BBC miniseries takes advantage of all the aesthetic capabilities of the screen arts.
Inevitably, developing a nearly 1,500 page novel into an eight-hour series loses some of the great nuances that fill the original masterpiece. Perhaps, some of the overarching themes that distinguish Tolstoy’s famous work from the rest are not as developed in the miniseries, an aspect that loyal fans to the literature will find disappointing. Yet the striking cinematography makes the eight hours of screening, despite the inaccuracies, better than not having a show at all. While the miniseries doesn’t replace the novel in its importance or cultural relevance, its powerful visual impact is an accomplishment on its own.