It is hard to imagine what BBC expected when they signed a young director, Tom Harper, to do War & Peace. The 35-year-old director did do Demons, but it was based on the fabulous adventures of van Helsing, not Dostoevsky. There is little in Harper's resume to suggest that he was up to the task, which I suppose is why BBC enlisted veteran screenwriter Andrew Davies to adapt the novel to the television screen.
Suffice it to say young Tom is no Sergei Bondarchuk. I question whether he even read the book, but rather adapted Bondarchuk's enthralling epic film to the television screen. This new version was more about scenography than acting, with the characters pretty much reduced to stand-ins for the roles. There were a few big name actors like Paul Dano, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea and Gillian Anderson, but for the most part these were newbies or actors you hadn't heard about unless you tune into BBC programming.
Lily James was the star of the show, fresh off her success in Downton Abbey and as Cinderella in the latest cinematic version. Her perky character fit Natasha Rostova well enough in the early scenes, but when the demand on her talents increased as the story unfolded she was woefully lacking. I think it would have been better to try to enlist the services of Alicia Vikander, who gave a pretty decent turn as Kitty Oblonsky in Anna Karenina. However, I think these actors got little in the way of direction and were left to their own devices as to how to draw something out of their characters.
It's worth comparing these two recent adaptations as they were both British productions. Anna Karenina was a 2012 cinematic release by Joe Wright, who re-imagined the novel as a theatrical production, infusing it with rich colors and having the actors throw their hearts and souls into the Tom Stoppard script, with heightened dramatic effect. The novel was shaved down to two hours, so there was a lot missing, but the intent of the novel was very much in place, and you really felt for Anna when her world fell apart over her illicit love for Count Vronsky.
Tom Harper gave War & Peace more space but utterly failed in capturing the intent of the novel. He and Davies reduced it to a bedroom drama, where sex and intrigue drive the mini-series, particularly in the nasty characterization of Helene Bezukhova, who seems to sleep with just about everyone during the course of this series, including her brother. This generated the most advance publicity, as there was no explicit reference to incest in the novel, but Davies felt it was implied in the novel and that was enough for him.
There is no nuance, nor theatrically in this telling. It is a paint-by-numbers production with sex scenes thrown in so that you won't fall asleep over the approximately 6-hour running time. The scenes were mostly shot in and around Vilnius, Lithuania, with a few scenes shot in Petersburg for dramatic effect. There is no sense of an epic as most of the action takes place in the narrow confines of set productions. As such, it might have behooved Harper to take the same approach as Wright and make this a theatrical production. Of course that would have meant reading the novel and reducing it down to its essence, which it doesn't seem Tom Harper nor Andrew Davies had the patience to do.
The worst part about this production is the way Paul Dano played Pierre Bezukhov. He kept the same doe-eyed, open-mouthed expression virtually throughout the movie. It was like he projected Bezukhov as Oblomov, a slothful figure who finds himself on the receiving end of great wealth and doesn't know what to do with it. There is some attempt to get to the soul of Bezukhov's character, but nothing like Bondarchuk in his telling, who offered numerous philosophical and poetic asides as they related to the novel. We are simply supposed to project from Paul Dano's woeful countenance what is lurking beneath his forlorn character.
James Norton as Andrei Bolkonsky isn't any better, but at least Norton gives some measure of pride to his character, and you can see why Natasha might be attracted to him. However, as the series unfolds, Norton also gets lost in his role, unable to project the changes in his attitude, particularly when he falls in love with Natasha. Suffice it to say, the famous waltz in no way matches the original.
The periphery figures more or less fade into the background with a few notable exceptions. Jim Broadbent gave Bolkonsky's father the fierceness he had in the novel. Tom Burke was both charming and cunning as Dolokhov, the first of many to betray poor Pierre. Tuppence Middleton was quite fetching as Bezukhov's treacherous wife. Unfortunately, Stephen Rea and Gillian Anderson were given incidental roles, factoring little in the story.
I suppose you have to refresh the classics from time to time so as to kindle interest in a new generation, but it is doubtful today's kids are going to slog through a 1500-page book where the big payoff is Pierre finally getting together with Natasha after reading of Russia's great defense of its homeland and proud noble tradition. This movie looked like it was derived from the Cliff Notes.
As my wife said afterward, you didn't care for anyone in this television series, except maybe Marya Bolkonskaya, who had to endure a tyrannical father through most of the series, only to find her love in the end as well. There was something endearing about Jessie Buckley's portrayal. As for Lily James, she looked like Cinderella in Tsarist Russian times not sure which Prince to take. Fortunately, Bolkonsky made it easy for her.