What to Expect From BBC’s ‘War and Peace’? ‘Downton Abbey’ With Bayonets

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On January 18, The Weinstein Company and BBC Worldwide will unveil their co-production of Tolstoy’s War and Peace across three channels — A&E, Lifetime, and History Channel — to an American audience that is not altogether familiar with the book. But yesterday, in England, where they prefer to lie about having read the novel, the series debuted to a respectable if modest 6.3 million viewers. As a point of comparison: ITV’s fantastical, anti-literary Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands brought in 2.6 million viewers.

It’s hard to say whether American audiences will take to a literary miniseries comprising six one-and-a-half-hour episodes, but any low ratings won’t be for lack of celebrity or sex or war or incest. To begin with, the drama features a fair number of recognizable faces, even for watchers of the History Channel. Paul Dano, for one, plays an intensely perplexed Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count (who later becomes one), and Cinderella’s Lily James plays Natasha Rostova as if she is some kind man-crazed voyeur — at least in the first episode.

And that’s the tenor of the series early on: sex and youth, impending war and early marriage. Basically, if you shift from Tolstoy’s big-picture historical thematics toward drawing-room gossip (tinged with melodrama), you get an approximation of this adaptation, which was scripted by BBC stalwart Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Harper. Although, it should be added that the first episode’s few war scenes were surprisingly robust (if confusing). So, too, was an unsurprisingly controversial (in the UK at least) scene of half-incest between Helene Kuragin (Tuppence Middleton) and her brother Anatole (Callum Turner). It should go without saying that it doesn’t play out exactly this way in the novel.

Yes, it’s Downton Abbey with war scenes, which should be enough to draw and retain an American viewership — certainly over and above last year’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a series too slow, serious, and dimly lit for US audiences. But Wolf Hall was surprisingly good; it remains to be seen whether Harper’s War and Peace can recapture the historical sweep of Tolstoy’s novel, or whether it wants to. If the first episode was a remarkable feat of concision — it captures more than the first book of the novel in a single episode — the rest will have to be better. The next five episodes have to cover an additional 13 or 14 narrative sections.

It’s also too early to tell who among the series’ surfeit of attractive young actors might stand out after six episodes. Dano is reliably Dano, which is to say that he uses the same twisty-mouth expression to deliver any given emotion; Lily James seems to be aware that her character is in the early stages of her evolution. Otherwise, more tested actors Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent, and Stephen Rea have stolen the show from a younger cast. The possible exception is Tuppence Middleton’s Helene Kuragin, who almost singlehandedly gives the first episode its edge. In the end, though, much of the series will rest on the shoulders of James Norton, who plays Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Norton is perhaps best known to American audiences for playing Sidney Chambers on Grantchester.

Still, based on a single episode, it seems unlikely that this production of War and Peace will reach the heights of the 1966-67 Sergei Bondarchuk version, or the 1956 King Vidor adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn. Nor will Dano likely play Pierre as well as Anthony Hopkins did in 1972. But at least the efforts of the BBC and The Weinstein Company will spare us this 60-hour marathon reading of the novel by schoolchildren and cosmonauts. Anyway, shouldn’t you be reading the book?