(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished on the occasion of Leo Tolstoy’s birth anniversary.)
I don’t know about you but I have never had the courage to touch Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace as a reader. Just the sheer bulk of the book makes me scram every time I look at it. But now BBC’s adaptation of the great novel is on the Indian small screens and I have to admit that after watching the first three episodes, I am hooked.
War and Peace is like our very own Mahabharat, where personal tales play out against the grand canvas of time. The story primarily follows the journeys of the vivacious Natasha (Lily James), the confused Pierre (Paul Dano) and the glory-seeking Andrei (James Norton) against the backdrop of Napolean’s 1805 invasion of Russia. But just like in Mahabharat, there are a whole gamut of supporting characters that are so strongly etched and with such captivating stories of their own, that you are spoilt for choice as a seeker of tales.
And that is precisely the first point where the British drama succeeds. Adapting War and Peace for the screen calls for a lion heart and this particular project - it’s written by Andrew Davies - leaves little scope for improvement.
Directed by Tom Harper, most of the characters in this costume drama are deftly etched out in the opening scenes of the first episode. The screenplay traverses between St Petersburg, Moscow and Brunn rapidly but without compromising on depth. You don’t feel that a particular character should have got more screen time or an episode needed to be explored more.
And what’s fantastic is how much is conveyed visually, without words. Take for instance the farewell scene between Andrei and his pregnant wife or where Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, played by the incomparable Jim Broadbent, tries to come to terms with the news of his son’s possible death - simply beautiful.
And that brings us to the performances. It’s tough to find a weak actor among the lot, and even the comparatively smaller characters (in terms of screen time as far as the first three episodes go) are powered by such excellent talents that you want to sit back and savour it some more.
The first name, apart from Broadbent, that comes to mind is Brian Cox as General Mikhail Kutuzov, who tries and fails to drive sense into war-crazed men. He brings such dignity and pathos to his character - I simply hope we see him some more. Tuppence Middleton as the ruthless and promiscuous Helene is another powerful character on screen. And I can’t wait for more of Mathieu Kassovitz as Napoleon Bonaparte.
The third factor that contributes to the success of the drama is its cinematography by George Steel. Filmed in Russia, Lithuania and Latvia, the series is a visual treat - I kept wishing for a giant screen to watch it on. And it’s not only the stunning landscapes, but how the camera is used to mirror the heartlands of the characters.
Think of Pierre travelling in the carriage to his father’s deathbed, resting his head onto the blurring window. You immediately feel the confusion ripping through him. Or the scene where a handful of Russian army advances towards the French and there’s nothing but blind, white fog ahead. You hold your breath automatically in that scene, it’s so ominous.
Final verdict: I am probably risking being stone-pelted or something, but I would rather watch War and Peace than Game of Thrones. There’s a reason why classics never go out of circulation. And Zee Cafe India has got a winner on its hands with this one.