'War and Peace': TV Review

War and Peace - H 2016
Courtesy of BBC/Laurie Sparham
The book is bigger and better.

Leo Tolstoy's novel gets lavish-yet-limited treatment — with Paul Dano, Gillian Anderson and Brian Cox headlining the ensemble cast — on Lifetime, A&E and History.

Once such a conspicuous totem of idealized literacy that poor Charlie Brown was forced to read it over winter vacation, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace remains a core element of the literary canon, but it's likely that fewer people than ever are pretending to have read the book.

Perhaps that will change with the new miniseries adaptation of War and Peace, airing in four two-hour episodes on A&E, Lifetime and History, starting Monday (Jan. 18) night. Written in its totality by Andrew Davies (the beloved Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice) and directed by Tom Harper, this new War and Peace looks ravishing and boasts a cast peppered with Oscar and Emmy winners, all impeccably costumed. It also can't begin to capture the nuance of a decades-spanning novel in terms of character development, thematic exploration or historical depth and probably barely tries. It's a march through epic battles, epic romance and epic intellectual discovery, but viewers are probably going to have to take that old Tolstoy off the shelf ito fully understand what's so epic about it. Onscreen, it remains a fine, fast-moving yarn, but you don't have to have read the book to nod sagely and say, "The book is better."

Through the first four hours of War and Peace, one thing that's immediately impressive is just how many great actors are only barely being used. Gillian Anderson, also returning to TV this week in The X-Files, waltzes into a few scenes as Anna Pavlovna, but short of calling her "a socialite," her capacity is limited. Jim Broadbent has an effective scene or two as Prince Bolkonsky, but he's one of several older characters defined by funny hats or the luxurious chairs in which they sit. Brian Cox wears a spiffy military uniform as General Kutuzov, but there's no reason you need a Brian Cox for the role. Stephen Rea gets more value out of scheming and sniveling as status-hungry Prince Kuragin, but he isn't stretching much.

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The veteran performers are often wasted or underused because War and Peace has very little way to properly build context for Russian in the early 19th century. There are clashes of generational values that get lost, because nobody can adequately espouse an ideology before it's on to the next scene. There's an economic hierarchy that has to be assumed because Harper and his production team have made everything look so beautiful. Can you tell the difference between the aristocrats and the peasants? Absolutely. But is there any way to distinguish between all of the people called "Prince" and the various tiers of the upper class? No. And if the tiers of Russian society can't be discerned, there's no way to understand the threat that Napoleon represented, nor to understand the opportunity he represented for some. There's a lot being fought for in War and Peace that barely makes it to the screen, even if the battles that represent half of the title have a nice scope.

Instead, War and Peace is usually most satisfying as an expansive soap, with the young actors generating the required sighs for their love stories, the appropriate hissing for their villainy and the desired frustration for their slow evolution in changing times.

As Pierre, Paul Dano begins as a wishy-washy buffoon and evokes sympathy and infuriation on his slow journey, especially when paired with Tuppence Middleton's properly horrid Helene. James Norton has limited opportunity to make Andrei more than inscrutably brooding, but he's designed to make viewers swoon and it's hard to imagine him failing. Norton has the good fortune to often be paired with Lily James, who takes Natasha believably from nervous teen to radiant young adult. Aggressively twirling a metaphorical mustache, Tom Burke's Dolokhov is maybe too obviously nefarious, but he also conveys the character's troublemaking allure.

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Many of the other young characters have a hard time breaking out of a blur of well-appointed sitting rooms and lavish balls, and it becomes a challenge to tell which pretty people are rich, which are poor, which are supposed to be urbane and which are bumpkins, which are cousins and which cousins are too close to marry and which cousins are just distant enough.

One wouldn't want to recommend Charlie Brown do a book report based exclusively on watching this new War and Peace miniseries, but the cast and pervasive prettiness of the surroundings may be enough to encourage some viewers to seek out Tolstoy to fill in and make sense of the myriad limitations and gaps.

Network: A&E, History, Lifetime

Cast: Paul Dano, Lily James, James Norton, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson

Writer: Andrew Davies

Director: Tom Harper

Airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT for four weeks on Lifetime, A&E and History.