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.
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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.
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If Pierre doubles down on the whole Alexander Hamilton thing and changes his mind on the affair, he might have some options. Natasha’s friend Sonya (Aisling Loftus) calls her out for loving “that funny one with the glasses,” though Natasha denies it. She channels her energy into Sonya’s relationship with Nikolai (Jack Lowden), Natasha’s brother, who’s gone off to war. Welcome to other half of the title. Russia is engaged in a fight against Napoleon’s invading forces, enticing young men across the country with the promise of glory. Pierre’s friend Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) wants to lead the way.
Andrei is bored in his marriage to Lise (Kate Phillips), which is apparently enough of a reason to go to war, even though Lise’s pregnant. This is the hero of the hour? He shoves his crying, pregnant wife into a chair when she tries to hug him, leaving her in the country with his father (Jim Broadbent) and sister Marya (Jessie Buckley). Andrei is, at least, aware that there’s something a little wrong with his craving for “one moment of glory,” which pushes him into the most dangerous battles. When the entire Austrian army is outflanked and forced to surrender, Russia sends a detachment into battle to delay Napoleon. They’re basically sitting ducks, and Andrei volunteers to join them.
Nikolai, also in the battle, is injured, but both men make it out alive. Nikolai emerges cockier than he was before; he’s cold to Andrei when he meets him, accusing the staff of stealing the front line’s glory. As for Andrei, he’s sad that he’s getting old, and it makes him reckless. Even his general wants to retreat from their next battle against Napoleon, but the Tsar wants to advance and fight, so they do — marching through the fog into a gruesome wall of French defenses. It gets bloody. As everyone else pulls back, Andrei grabs a flag and leads his men forward, where he’s stabbed in the side with a bayonet. As he bleeds out in the field, he finally notices how blue the sky is.
What’s next for our brooding, wife-abandoning hero? I suspect that he’s too pretty to die, but anything could happen.
Medals of honor:
- I counted how many emotions Jim Broadbent manages to cycle through in his few minutes of screen time, and the answer is “all of them.”
- “Cousins!” “I know. But what can one do?”
- We’re really going there with Helene’s relationship with her brother Anatole (Callum Turner), aren’t we?
- Give Gillian Anderson a Real Housewives spoof.
- “There, now we’re engaged.”
- I don’t think Natasha feels fear or cold. Does she own long sleeves?
- “I understand how you feel, although how could I, not being a — life is very — no, this is all wrong.”