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Arts | By Roger Lewis

Roger Lewis assesses War and Peace on the small screen

When War and Peace is adapted the grand opera is turned into soap opera. Or so I’d always believed. In fact, looking at the novel again in recent weeks, despite the amplitude and panorama, Tolstoy’s world is very small. Everyone knows each other or knows about each other, and they end up marrying each other. The plot is episodic, full of coincidences. It could be Coronation Street or EastEnders, with Anna Pavlovna’s salon a high-society Russian version of the Rovers or the Queen Vic.

The stars of the television version were the costumes and the locations – the gauzy dresses and the diamonds and pearls on bare shoulders; the ecstasy of polished boots and embroidered white and gold military uniforms; the candlelit balls with lots of gold-rimmed mirrors and crystal wine goblets. Other than that, this could be the present day, with youngsters wanting sex and getting jealous and beating each other up and storming off in huffs. Owing to the snow, they stormed off in huffs wearing muffs.

I adored Lily James’s impulsive Natasha – she was better than Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film. Lily, bringing more than a hint of Downton to St Petersburg, possessed the character’s ‘wildly bright eyes’, and her cascading blonde hair was a character in itself. We often saw her reflected in windows or gazing soulfully at flowers. No wonder the men fall in love with her – and she learns to accept or deflect their attention. The allegory of the wolf hunt was particularly fine, with randy Anatole (Callum Turner) loping into her boudoir later, attired in a coat made of pelts.

James Norton’s Prince Andrei was a cold fish – cruel to his wife, who died gorily in childbirth, and then accepting without argument his father’s bonkers demand that he and Natasha should be separated for a year. Because, when reading the book, one is on the inside with the characters and their conflicting thoughts, to see Andrei impersonated by James Norton, with his clenched jaw, somehow oversimplified matters. Prince Andrei was no more than a brooding noble shit, yet Tolstoy wants him to be ‘very thoughtful and tender’.

With Jim Broadbent as his dad, however, no wonder he behaved as he did, with a sort of strutting furious imperiousness. Broadbent’s Bolkonski, haring about in a brocade dressing gown, was in many ways true to the novel –Tolstoy talks about the way the old prince ‘laughed in his usual dry, cold, unpleasant way, with his lips only and not with his eyes’. But there is also a lot more to him than sheer crankiness, and yet here his treatment of his daughter, Marya, was pure bullying nastiness. In the novel he is determined Marya will be properly educated: ‘I don’t want to have you like other silly ladies.’ On screen he inflicted algebra and geometry on her, seemingly out of random malice. Perhaps he was simply furious that Jessie Buckley spoke her lines in a working-class Welsh accent, particularly as the actress is Irish.

The thematic point of the novel is that peace is like war, war is like peace. The icily polite drawing-room encounters are skirmishes, replete with tactics and manoeuvrings. Master of this is Prince Vasili, whom Stephen Rea portrayed as a conniving anaconda. His daughter, Hélène, is of course a ghastly and manipulative nymphomaniac, but as played by Tuppence Middleton, squirming on a silk-curtained mahogany bedstead, she stole the show as far as the tabloids are concerned: ‘Tolstoy Totty’ was a headline I saw.

Because we are anti-war these days, and see no nobility in it, Tolstoy’s idea that, with ‘the bullets whistling all around’, the young men ‘experienced tenfold the joy of living, as they had not done since childhood’, was crucially missing. Natasha’s brother Nikolai is meant to go off to battle as if on a spree – yet we didn’t quite get ‘that feeling of a particular glamour and glad keenness of impression to everything’, which Tolstoy said takes place in a soldier’s breast when facing a hostile army. Instead we had Brian Cox glowering as the general. Indeed, such was the budget, neither the French nor the Russians managed to field their cavalries at Borodino. If I have left out Pierre it is because Paul Dano was a big, boring lump – watch the Anthony Hopkins version from 1972 to see how the role can be salvaged.

This story was from April 2016 issue. Subscribe Now