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The BBC’s War and Peace – Tolstoy on a speed-date

February 15, 2016

The Battle of Borodino

Here comes one of my occasional confessions. I have not read War and Peace.

Nor have I read Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, The Forsyte Saga and Lord of the Rings. No Hemingway, Henry James, Virginia Wolff or Graham Greene. In fact, despite my expensive education, virtually the entire canon of classic European literature has passed me by.

Virgil, Catullus, Herodotus, Thucydides, Euripides, Cicero, Homer – yep, I’ve read all of them, because the ancient world was my first love, and will always be closest to my heart.

I’ve expanded my taste somewhat since my antiquity-obsessed youth. And Shakespeare was a parallel interest ever since I acted for the first time in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – I played Tom Snout, also known as The Wall. Actually I like to think that my talent at portraying inanimate objects paid off when a decade later I was selected to play The Spanish Armada opposite Derek Jacobi in Sheridan’s The Critic.

Well, not quite. Jacobi played the leading role. I was a stage hand, and it was my job to wheel a plywood representation of the Armada on to the stage, all guns blazing. But as I crawled unseen behind the tableau, I felt a bit of a star myself.

The blazing guns bring me back to War and Peace, cannonades at Austerlitz, slaughter at Borodino and all. It’s a natural for film or TV. The grand sweep of history; tumultuous love affairs against the backdrop of Napoleon’s military triumphs and his penultimate downfall in 1812.

Andrew Davies’s six-part adaptation for the BBC is the latest in a long line of productions. I vaguely remember the BBC’s previous effort in the 1970s. But the emphasis is very much on vague. Before watching the latest series, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much of the plot, except that Napoleon and all his works loomed large, and that various Russian aristos kept falling in love and then changing their minds.

So when I watched the current effort, I was able to view it simply as an historical drama, without reference to previous performances in the leading roles, and most importantly without being weighed down by the motherlode of Tolstoy’s original work.

A good thing really, because otherwise I might have viewed it as a play within a play – a bit like the Spanish Armada in The Critic, though less silly.

So on what did the drama depend? Well, we have Pierre Bezukhov, a mild-mannered perpetual student who happens to have inherited vast riches from his father despite being an illegitimate son. Gullible enough to marry Helene Kuragina, a voracious seductress, who very quickly gets bored with her bibulous husband, and has an affair with one of his friends, the unscrupulous scrounger Dolokhov. Pierre finds out; he nearly kills his rival in a duel, despite never having fired a pistol before. Lucky boy.

Then there’s the handsome Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who’s a bit of a prig. He’s wounded at Austerlitz, and gets home just in time to see his wife die in childbirth. Thereafter he retreats to the country to contemplate his navel, leaving his father and sister to bring up his son. Father, Prince Nikolai – Crabby Dad hereafter – is permanently angry, though we never find out why (unless we did and I wasn’t paying attention).

Andrei falls in love with Natasha Rostova, whose brother Nikolai is in the process of destroying the family fortune by racking up massive gambling debts to colleagues in the army.  Nikolai’s dad, Count Ilya Rostov, is a kind-hearted soul whose attitude towards his rakish son seems to be “oh well, boys will be boys” as he steps closer to bankruptcy with each bail-out.

Natasha has to wait a year to marry Andrei, a stricture imposed on her beau by Crabby Dad as a condition for approving the marriage. So Andrei disappears to Switzerland. While he’s away, Natasha falls in love with Anatole Kuragin, Helene’s no-good brother. They are prevented just in time from eloping together. By this time Natasha has broken it off with Andrei, who is understandably miffed. He vows never to see or speak of her again. She, in turn, realises what a mistake she has made and is Very Unhappy.

Meanwhile Pierre has had an early-life crisis. He’s consumed with self-doubt and the futility of it all. He becomes a freemason, dedicating his life to the service of his fellow man (Tolstoy clearly thought that the masons were a Good Thing). Pierre wanders around his estates doing good things for his serfs, but he’s still not happy. He’s actually in love with Natasha, but can’t bring himself to tell her. Instead he acts as her consoler-in-chief.

Napoleon invades Russia, and as he gets close to Moscow, Nikolai Rostov conveniently rescues Andrei’s sister, Princess Maria, from the clutches of Napoleon and the ravages of her disaffected serfs (“what have you ever done for us, Princess?”). This is just the first in a series of just-in-times and at-the-last-moments, by the way.

Anyway, Crabby Dad has just died, and Maria is helpless. Despite Nikolai being betrothed to Sonya, his cousin and Natasha’s best friend, there is a spark between her and her dashing rescuer. Could Maria’s riches and Nikolai’s impending destitution have anything to do with it? Perish the thought.

Fast forward to Borodino, where the Russian army finally gets the better of Napoleon. Andrei’s great friend Pierre decides to do a bit of combat tourism. So he turns up in his civvies and finds himself in the thick of the battle, alternatively helping out the artillerymen and wandering around in a state of bemusement.

Pierre emerges dazed but unscathed. Andrei is badly injured. He ends up in the field hospital next to his badly-wounded love rival Anatole. Even though he has vowed to kill the rascal, Andrei holds his hand out to Anatole in a gesture of reconciliation.

Which takes us to the end of Episode 5. I won’t share the details of the last episode except that Pierre finds himself involuntarily taking part in the retreat from Moscow until he’s rescued by Dolakhov  – just in time – and there are a couple of moving deathbed scenes. The gorgeous Russian funeral dirges even bring a tear to this old cynic’s eye. But all works out in the end. Those who make the cut live happily ever after, and the series sails gently to its conclusion like an ocean liner easing into port.

It’s a pacey storyline. There are some good performances too. Brian Cox as Kutuzov, the wily old Russian commander who lures Napoleon on to the empty prize that Moscow turns out to be. Jim Broadbent as Crabby Dad (aka Prince Nikolai); Stephen Rea as Pierre’s relative, the grasping Prince Vassily Kuragin; Adrian Edmondson as the good-natured but feckless Count Rostov; and Scully (oops, sorry – Gillian Anderson) as Anna Scherer, the scheming St Petersburg hostess.

As for the lovers, they do a good job of looking soulful, sad, ecstatic, devastated and lascivious. That said, why do I find myself wanting to give them a good telling-off for being such bloody fools? But then again it’s not really their fault. They’re just creatures of the society whose rules are rigidly enforced by the older guys like Crabby Dad and nasty Prince Vassily.

Of all the younger characters, the most interesting by far is Pierre. He’s an odd combination of meek-and-mild but outrageously brave. He has the balls to take on Dolokhov, and he’s mad enough to go for a stroll round Borodino while all about him are dying grisly deaths. OK, perhaps not mad – more of a death wish. He’s gullible yet principled. He’s also supposed to be fat, so the obviously not fat Paul Dano has to spend most of the series in the sartorial equivalent of a fat suit – billowing coats that hide his lack of corpulence.

I found myself trying to fill in the gaps. Why was Crabby Dad so angry, and so horrible to his angelic daughter Maria? What was Andrei doing in Switzerland apart from recovering from his wound?  Why didn’t Pierre go into the military, like most of the other male characters? Was it just because of his spectacles? And why did the French bother to escort a bunch of prisoners into the snowy wastes during the retreat from Moscow? Why didn’t they just leave them to freeze to death, or just shoot them as they did a number of others?

Clearly I would have had to have read the whole nine yards, or fourteen hundred pages, to find out. But in an effort to flesh out the story I went to the web to find a plot summary, and discovered that War and Peace is indeed a ruminative landscape, full of discourse and philosophising, in which Tolstoy surveys the society of the Russia from which he sprung. The actual story as reduced by Andrew Davies could probably be told in a mere two or three hundred pages.

As a TV drama, it works pretty well. The music is sumptuous. The battle scenes are compelling. Many of the older characters are quirky enough to keep one’s interest. Yet I found myself empathising with few of them, young or old, with the exception of Natasha’s dad (“it’s only money after all”) and poor old Pierre, the reckless seeker after truth.

For a story that in Davies’s hands poses as a romantic drama, you surely need to be able to step inside the characters, to imagine yourself in their shoes – or voluminous coats, gold-braided uniforms and skimpy shifts as the case may be. I found that difficult, perhaps because I’m from Crabby Dad’s generation, but perhaps also because I couldn’t imagine myself, even in my wildest youth, falling in and out of love at the drop of a hat.

Perhaps the major flaw – for me at least – was the very obvious shoehorning of a lot of plot into six episodes. Whereas Tolstoy’s original, I suspect, marches at the measured pace of infantry, the TV series is like a cavalry charge, things happening, developing and changing in a seeming instant. Or to put it another way, fast food as opposed to a long meal among new friends.

But then again we like our drama to be crash bang wallop in this era of instant gratification, don’t we? Back in 1967, Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga meandered along for 26 episodes. It’s almost inconceivable that the BBC would invest in any series that long today, partly because of cost (even if the sets were made of cardboard) but mainly because most of us would have lost the will to live by Episode 15. In those days the BBC had less competition. In the time it took to watch the decline of Soames Forsyte, you could get through three series of Game of Thrones or The Bridge.

Will I now read Tolstoy’s magnum opus? Maybe, but I doubt it.

I get my usual supply of wisdom from trying to understand the world as it is today, and from looking at times past from the multiple standpoints of historians and contemporary accounts. You could easily argue that Tolstoy could contribute to that understanding, and you’d probably be right. But so many books, so little time. And, for that matter, so little retained. If I had Tolstoy’s intellect, things perhaps might be different.

And do I regret not having read all those classics before watching them on TV? Definitely yes. But about the only way I could see myself filling the vast gaps in my literary exposure would be to go back to university and do degrees in English, Russian and French literature. And that’s not going to happen. Too late for Jane Austen, sadly, and for Proust and Tolstoy too.

As for historical drama, I’m still waiting for someone to do justice to George McDonald Fraser’s incomparable Flashman, an amoral Victorian scum-bag with more charisma in his extravagant sideburns than poor Pierre and all of his honour-bound friends.

Over to you Mr Davies, if you dare.

From → Books, Film, UK

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