‘War & Peace’: Leo Tolstoy As a YA-Novel Writer

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

I would not recommend that any student assigned to read Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace use the BBC version premiering on American TV Monday night as a cheat-sheet substitute. When you bring up the incest subplot, your teacher will know you’ve not been doing the required assignment.

This War & Peace is adapted by Andrew Davies, who did the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice all you Anglophile TV addicts liked so much. Davies and director Tom Harper make War & Peace zip right along so that it fits into eight hours spread over four Mondays. They reduce, expand, or toss out numerous plot lines and characters, all in the service of heavy-breathing romance and big-spectacle battle scenes in a kind of young-adult-novel depiction of Russian families caught up in 19th-century tumult.

The performances are excellent. Paul Dano has merely to adjust his Brian Wilson/Love and Mercy portrayal a few millimeters to play a charmingly hapless Pierre Bezukhov. James Norton and Downton Abbeys Lily James complete the love triangle as Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostova. Gillian Anderson once again displays her mastery of foreign accents — this one is a British-inflected Russian — to portray the high society hostess Anna Pavlovna. Old pros such as Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, and Brian Cox are around to lend the soap opera proceedings some gravity.

The version I was sent for review was soaked in a pale, milky tint, and the sound mix was so horrible, I frequently couldn’t hear the dialogue over the blaring soundtrack, but I’m reasonably sure what you’ll see on TV tonight will be better than that.

War & Peace airs Monday night at 9 p.m. simultaneously on A&E, History, and Lifetime.