I can see the next big late-night talk show game now: Summarize War and Peace in 60 seconds. Even for those who know the plot, it would be impossible — and it still wouldn’t come close to the task facing Andrew Davies with this adaptation. The scope of Tolstoy’s notoriously long novel makes it a huge undertaking even for a miniseries, but it also works to the script’s advantage: With so much source material to pull from, every retelling has the opportunity to stake its own claim, and this one delivers in style.
War and Peace offers all of the grandeur you’d expect — The palaces! The battles! The love triangles! — but the joy of this miniseries is in the details. There’s a bear at a party! Gillian Anderson wears a bonnet! Paul Dano also talks to pigs more than once. Dano is perfectly out of place as the bumbling Pierre Bezukhov, illegitimate son of a wealthy count. We meet him at the salon of Anna Pavlovna Scherer (Anderson), real socialite of St. Petersburg, who likens the young man to a “wild animal.” He’s definitely unpolished. After arguing against the aristocracy to a bunch of aristocrats and then partying all night in a “wassup” commercial, Pierre gets a wake-up call: His father is on his deathbed.
Pierre’s scornful host, Prince Vassily Kuragin (Stephen Rea), accompanies him to Moscow but not out of the goodness of his heart. The Count’s latest will leaves everything to Pierre, and Vassily is out to destroy it without Pierre’s knowledge. He spends their road trip convincing the young man that he shouldn’t expect an inheritance. To be safe, he also conspires to keep Pierre out of the Count’s presence, which isn’t that hard — Pierre would rather run away from his fears anyway. But after a day spent perfecting his most awkward dance moves at the house of his friend Natasha (Lily James), reality comes calling again.
WANT MORE? Keep up with all the latest from last night’s television by subscribing to our newsletter. Head here for more details.
The Count has had another stroke. Family friend Anna Mikhailovna (Rebecca Front) goes to battle on Pierre’s behalf and talks her way past Vassily, for which she deserves a medal. She’s a mom on a mission. Anna gets Pierre his rightful inheritance, but her motives aren’t selfless, either: She wants the young new Count to owe her one. This is Pierre’s life now. It’s lonely at the top.
Vassily and Anna Pavlovna waste no time matching up Pierre — whose “exceptional qualities” they’ve suddenly known and loved all along — with Vassily’s daughter, Helene (Tuppence Middleton). They’re married before Pierre can even propose. Helene has no interest in Pierre beyond his status, but she does invite him to have as many affairs as he wants. If only that were his dream. But Pierre just wants kids with his wife; at the news that she’s sleeping with his brutish friend Dolokhov (Tom Burke), Pierre snaps and challenges Dolokhov to a duel.
NEXT: Lin-Manuel Miranda sings about the duel