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War and Peace recap: episode one – ‘costume drama at its most lavish’

Well, I know that must have cost a bomb, but it was worth every kopeck. That was utterly fabulous. Balls at the Winter Palace! Men in full military uniform galloping forth on white chargers! Stolen kisses in the conservatory! Dancing bears in drunken flashback scenes! Cavorting ladies drinking champagne! Pass me a magnum of your finest! Bring on the actresses! Actually, don’t bring on any more actors or actresses because they just lined up the entire alumni roster of Rada for this production and there aren’t any more actors or actresses left, they already used them all up.

This is proper, proper costume drama at its most lavish and its most dreamily, romantically Russian. This is how you do it, people. This is how you do it. Stop all period dramas being made now because nothing is going to match up to this. Sunday-night TV has been rescued. It’s hard to imagine how the BBC could have done a better job. It makes Downton Abbey look like am dram. It’s tonally perfect, striking exactly the right balance between drama and wit, action and emotion, passion and humour.

In fact, perhaps that’s the most surprising and exciting thing about this production: it’s actually (and intentionally) funny.

The face of Paul Dano as the hopeless but completely engaging Pierre Bezukhov is a Woody Allen character study in itself. Gillian Anderson’s Anna Pavlovna is a wonderfully subtle caricature of a society hostess. And Rebecca Front’s turn as Anna Mikhailovna is inspired casting: the ultimate busybody who’s damned if she’s going to let go of the old man’s last will and testament if someone she is connected to might benefit.

It’s the lightness of touch of the direction here that makes this piece work so well. Hats off to Tom Harper (The Borrowers, Peaky Blinders, The Woman in Black). He has coaxed performances out of every actor that are absolutely delicious and perfectly pitched. And the pace of it! Harper has said that the battle scenes involved “a lot of planning for a short amount of whizz bang”. But they are brilliantly done: evocative, saturated with colour, so real you feel as if you’re there. Forgive me for being so in love with it all. Possibly I have been, er, spiritually horsewhipped by the image of James Norton (Prince Andrei) on a stallion. I wish.

My only worry is that they’re throwing it away by only doing six hours. I wonder if they were influenced by the BBC’s legendary Pride and Prejudice, also six hours long. But War and Peace is the closest British television has come to Game of Thrones and that has had 50 episodes. Is it all going to feel a bit rushed and manic? And how on earth will we keep up with cast of 35 main characters? I’m anxious, but also excited and optimistic.

Those all-important Mr Darcy moments

Of course it’s a cliche that poor James Norton has to live up to the Colin Firth “wet T-shirt” moment. As does every man with floppy hair and a white shirt in any period drama produced since 1995. But he made his a spectacular claim to the crown here without having to remove or wet down any clothing. The hair! The brooding countenance! The unfathomable, disdainful regard! While Norton, aged 30, was on location in St Petersburg, a Russian said to him: “No man under 40 has ever taken this role on. Good luck.” But he doesn’t need the luck. He’s nailed it. That’s quite enough about nailing for now.

Anna Pavlovna (Gillian Anderson) and Prince Vassily Kuragin (Stephen Rea).

Villain of the week

Since the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (upon whom this performance seems to be closely modelled), there has never been a villain so delightfully venal, hand-wringingly unctuous and broodingly cunning as Stephen Rea’s Prince Vassily. It’s rare to see such an understatedly brilliant performance: you can read Prince Vassily’s motives from the first second you lay eyes on him.

The novel opens with him, and writer Andrew Davies is right to preserve him here as the centrepiece: Prince Vassily represents everything that is claustrophobic and controlling about Russian court society and his face explains in a second why Pierre Bezukhov is so cornered and compromised and why Prince Andrei has to leave and fight.

Audrey Hepburn Award for Most Beautiful Lady Acting

This week’s award goes to Lily James, who plays Natasha Rostova, the role portrayed by Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film version of War and Peace. (Henry Fonda played Pierre Bezukhov, fact fans.) Lily James (familiar to Sunday-night viewers as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey) has the most extraordinary and captivating face and a timeless elegance. She captures “youthful exuberance” in a single glance and sets the standard for period drama “beautiful lady” acting. I have a feeling she will win this award every episode. But let’s see.

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War and Peace: Natasha Rostov (Lily James) and Boris (Aneurin Barnard).

Russian pedant’s corner

Was there anything here to bother Russian speakers (I am one) or Tolstoy purists (I’m not one, but I have a degree in Russian literature)? Not overtly yet, although Davies has admitted he had to slash the novel in half in order to fit it into the timeframe. (This is, in itself, a miracle.)

He has taken a few liberties, such as the overt suggestion that there’s a sexual brother-sister Kuragin relationship (it’s only covert in the original). And obviously we “see” any sexual antics or flesh more than we “see” them in the novel. But that’s Davies for you. There are a few moments when the Russian pronunciations grate, but overall it’s consistent and viewer-friendly and that is what matters most. Vodka toasts with a gherkin chaser all round.


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