The title War & Peace should need no introduction for most. The novel is of legendary stature both for its lengthy page count and as a respected tome of philosophy and literature. But fear not entertainment seekers, here we have an adaptation that attempts to breathe new life into this classic melodrama. The clear aim is to appeal to modern audiences and use the episodic format to do the property justice, all while giving you proper bathroom breaks.
The drama unfolds against the backdrop of the rise of Napoleon and proceeds with his eventual invasion into Russia. Through these world events we track the lives of several aristocratic families. In particular, the focus tends towards how the younger generation shifts perspectives under the pressures of war. They begin the narrative already deprived of their hearts true desires because of political circumstances handed down from their parents. In this version, all the young people are appropriately beautiful and confused at the onset of the story. Over time, the war and the stripping away of these societal trappings allows the characters to discover the importance of being happy and in love. In this respect, this is a straightforward romantic soap opera set against the period and drama of Napoleonic war.
There have been several previous incarnations. Sergei Bondarchuk's Russian language film version (which is also rather lengthy at nearly seven hours) is cited as epic both in scope and drama. Unfortunately, at this time it is only available on a modest looking DVD set, which is a tragedy that perhaps some wise and sophisticated releasing company will soon remedy with a restored Blu-ray. The Audrey Hepburn version is available now on Blu-ray and is touted as having tremendous production values.
Now we are given this shiny, new interpretation, clocking in at six total hours over eight episodes. The project was shot on location in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania and from the looks of it no expense was spared. The designs of the costumes are marvelous, sets are lavish, and locations stunning. Co-produced by BBC and The Weinstein Company, the cast is thusly comprised of mostly Brits and Americans with a few exceptions such as Mathieu Kassovitz as Napoleon. The performances are solid if at times perfunctory with a nice blend of well-trained veterans and respectable young talent on the rise. Jim Broadbent is wonderfully wild as an aged patriarch slowly losing his mind. Jessie Buckley is beautifully understated as the slightly timid, but always reliable unlucky sister. Aisling Loftus brings believably complex depths to a character that could have been one note.
The writing is credited to Andrew Davies who is also listed as an Executive Producer. I've recently enjoyed his Mr. Selfridge. With a long list of well written dramas, he clearly knows how to craft an ongoing saga of this type, length and breadth. The writing here is quite good, and in keeping with his ability to find nuanced moments of humanity with natural humor.
Despite all these fine qualities I personally was left feeling a bit flat.
One area lacking is visual construction. For a lot of Masterpiece theater titles this would be accepted as competent work in TV land. However, the strength of this material demands more storytelling ambition which could have elevated this project to a higher stature. There is a lot of Steadicam (or similar rig) used and while it is pretty, appears to have no point of view and mostly feels rather tedious and unaffecting.
Two storytelling flourishes that stood out for me were a spot in episode one that used an interesting editing technique from Easy Rider intercutting back and forth between Pierre (Paul Dano) walking and a loud Bacchanalian party he is pulled by some unseen force almost against his will to attend. Then in episode two, in surveying the damage after the battle sequence there are a few lingering moments with poetic voiceover looking at ants on a hill and clouds in the sky á la Terence Malick's work. Unfortunately, these fairly direct mimics are about as close to any real striking choices I was able to discern.
To be fair to director Tom Harper it's enlivening when in episode seven the camera becomes a character hit with a cannon ball, flies through the air and then lands on his face after the blast. Also in one character's death scene there is a rather lovely sequence where his life moments literally flash before our eyes. It's for me the most touching and potent series of images in the whole narrative and sadly doesn't last long.
One of my favorite aspects of great melodrama are the twists and for me with few exceptions the story beats felt telegraphed in a way that is mostly predictable. Unfortunately, this did not add to the horrible feeling of powerlessly watching a tragedy unfold, which can be compelling, like in Godard's Contempt for example.
Similarly, with the soundtrack I noticed nothing surprisingly creative in its use, which seems a shame for a story with the potential to be powerfully affecting and even cathartic for the viewer.
Being brand new, the encoding for this title is very good. It's presented in 1.78:1. The image is very clean and detailed which I believe matches the original source. There are some highlights that seem a bit out of proportion and on my television the visuals lack some richness on the low end blacks. Overall the images are sharp, but somewhat flat with some blown highlights. I'm assuming this is an intentional look and that there's nothing wrong with the transfer. Skin tones are pleasing and natural. The project was shot using several of the new Blackmagic 4k camera packages as well as Arri Alexa and then was graded in DaVinci Resolve.
The only audio choice is a DTSHD-MA English language track which should please all comers. Also offered are English subtitles for the hearing impaired and Spanish subtitles. All the dialogue is presented crisp and clear with no noticeable distortion. Background noise is correctly proportioned and music and sound effects don't muffle the dialogue audio track which comes through clearly even in moments with loud effects.
Package and Extras:
Standard clamshell case with two discs. There's about fifteen minutes total of behind the scenes promos broken into six segments. Fairly standard promo pieces mostly featuring the main cast and crew but it's a nice introduction to some of the people involved in making the series and how their basic process works. Also has a segment about the music and a piece discussing the shooting of the historical Rundale palace in Latvia.
• From Page to Screen
• The Read Through
• Making the Music
• Count Rostov's Dance
• Rundale Palace
• What is War & Peace?
It's hard not to look for comparison at David Lean's Doctor Zhivago. When one thinks of snowy Russian landscapes, societal strife and war-torn lovers how could it not come to mind? What is truly remarkable to note about that film is that in addition to having beautiful production values, epic scope and a wonderful cast, Zhivago also has two things a bit more elusive in large budget projects these days: a strong point of view and cinematic innovations that serve the emotional impact of the story.
I recall a quote from the recent film End of the Tour: "You don't crack open a thousand-page book because you heard the author is a regular guy, you do it because he's brilliant. Because you want him to be brilliant." I expect the same from a six-hour epic based on a novel known as one of the greatest ever written. If you enjoy some of the other Masterpiece theater titles such as the excellent Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge, then you should be able to appreciate this title as a pleasant diversion along those same lines. If you are expecting brilliance however, then I'm sorry to say, look elsewhere.