From ballrooms to battlefields: a historical review of War and Peace

Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred in the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace.

Leo Tolstoy’s Russian epic, set against the backdrop of Tsarist Russia facing French invasion, was not the obvious choice for the BBC’s next big historical drama. However, it appears that the risk has paid off. War and Peace has been a triumph from start to finish, as reflected in its sky-high viewing figures. The chaos and drama of nineteenth-century Russia is firmly stamped on the series, with the high octane atmosphere of the Napoleonic Wars displayed in vibrant colour. Clever casting, stunning cinematography, and passionate performances have created one of the greatest TV adaptations of recent years, offering viewers a close insight into the political and social issues of nineteenth century life in Russia.

The uncertainty surrounding the ever-changing map of European power during the Napoleonic Wars provides the setting for War and Peace. The series covers the period of 1805 to 1812 when Russia played a crucial role in this battle for European dominance. French sympathy among the upper classes clashed with Russian nationalism, which was beginning to stir among the population. Political tension is mirrored and refracted through the relationships between the characters, who are drawn from the upper echelons of Russian society. Lucrative marital alliances were particularly important during this period of instability; wealth and security had to be ensured. This comes into sharp focus when the audience realises that Nikolai and Sonya are unable to marry due to her inability to bring wealth to the marriage.

Battle scenes, which build in intensity throughout the series, help to frame the narrative. The Battle of Borodino, depicted in the fifth episode, was the bloodiest of the Napoleonic Wars with around 70,000 casualties. Writer Andrew Davies is faithful to this fact; he doesn’t shirk on goriness, and uses sound to portray a sense of being enveloped in the action. The Napoleonic period also saw shifting political alliances, which emerged and dissolved at a rapid pace. The Tsar switched from French ally to French enemy multiple times during this period of war. This undertone of distrust and uneasiness can be seen throughout the series, offering us a glimpse into the tensions that must have existed for Russians living during such a turbulent time.

War and Peace was praised for its realistic battle scenes.

However, we must not forget that the action is focused on the aristocratic classes. Lavish costumes and glorious buildings emphasise this fact. The characters appear to be constantly jostling for greater power and vying for the Tsar’s favour. These noble figures were keen to ensure their personal aristocratic ascendancy, but also to secure a means of political protection during such volatile times. Rebecca Front’s Anna Mikhailovna and Stephen Rea’s Prince Vassily Kuragin regularly use their own children as pawns in this diplomatic game. The ballroom scene in the third episode uses a wonderful combination of lighting, costume, and setting to illustrate the wealth of the Russian upper classes, as well as their sense of personal entitlement. Pierre Bezukhov, played brilliantly by Paul Dano, tussles with his elite position in society, yearning to escape it, but also revelling in it. Seduced by sex, gambling and drinking, he appears desperate to reform and restore faith in his character. The final episode sees Pierre befriending an elderly man after they are both imprisoned by the French; he helps Pierre to realise his own good fortune and to appreciate what he has. In one of the series’ most touching scenes, Pierre chooses to slowly savour his food, despite his hunger, fully realising this rhetoric of gratitude.

The vivacity of elite Russian society is tempered by the heavy weight of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Church originated, in its early form, from the Byzantine Empire and has always maintained this Eastern flavour. After the fall of the Eastern Empire in the fifteenth century, it became a semi-independent branch of Christianity. Subtle reminders of Russia’s unique religious culture are cleverly woven into the fabric of the series, particularly through the use of haunting, liturgical chants which are fed throughout the soundtrack. Religious dedication and doubtfulness also bubble to the surface during the series. The pious Marya stays loyal to her faith, whilst her philosophical brother Andrei questions the religious framework they are living under.

One of the stunning palace locations used in the filming of War and Peace.

It seems fastidious to dull the shine of such a fantastic BBC series, but there were some missteps along the way. British overtones within the production can be seen to fog the Russian narrative. Jim Broadbent’s turn as Prince Bollonsky, though wonderfully performed, does appear too British for its own good. He brings a bumbling Britishness to proceedings which is perhaps misguided in this Russian epic. Similarly, the use of unauthentic name abbreviations, such as ‘Tasha’ and ‘Nikki’, smacks of a director clamouring to his British audience. There are further cases in which the British influence seems to have gone too far. In some instances sets and costumes feel overly Georgian, even bordering on Austenian. This is unsurprising when we consider that Davies was also responsible for the BBC’s acclaimed Pride and Prejudice series. In reality, room interiors, architecture and clothing would have been markedly different in nineteenth-century Russia to Georgian England. Professor Orlando Figes, a British historian of Russian history, who worked as a historical advisor on War and Peace, has conceded that a few inaccuracies have slipped into the series. For example, he notes that the tents in which soldiers are depicted sheltering prior to the Battle of Borodino (during the fifth episode) would have been far cruder and fairly makeshift in reality.

Historical slip-ups aside, the vast array of acting talent on display in War and Peace is plain to see. Lily James and James Norton have predictably dominated the headlines, however credit should also be given to the lesser known actors and actresses, such as Jessie Buckley and Callum Turner, who offer fantastic performances. Yet it is Paul Dano’s Pierre who really steals the show. A character we can all relate to on some level, Pierre is caught between vice and virtue, and spends much of the series searching for his calling in life. Dano roots his Pierre in realism, whilst maintaining a sense of the character’s quirky awkwardness. He carries the series with aplomb, surrounded by a huge cast of talented performers.

It was always going to be interesting to see how a British audience would respond to a Russian epic, adapted for the small screen. We’ve been treated to some excellent historical adaptations in recent years, including Wolf Hall and The White Queen, but they’ve been typically Anglo-centric. The decision to step into unchartered territory has been a clever move. Bloodier than the run-of-the-mill Sunday evening fare, War and Peace has introduced the British public to a fascinating slice of European history with considerable gusto. The success of the series is testament to the bravery of the BBC for tackling a lengthy Russian classic, taking the audience outside of their regional and literary comfort zones. By mixing established performers with newcomers, War and Peace has certainly offered something new and innovative, without overstepping the mark. Let’s hope the BBC can keep up the good work.

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