Leo Tolstoy's classic novel War & Peace is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars in the early nineteenth century. It is about love and loss, destiny, the search for meaning, and the moral value of forgiveness. This involving story has now been turned into a sumptuous and exhilarating new miniseries by the BBC. The writer is Andrew Davies, the creative genius behind the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Furth version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and the Hattie Morahan/Dan Stevens version of Sense and Sensibility, as well as many other costume dramas and television miniseries.
This DVD has eight 60-minute episodes. Director Tom Harper has put together a top-drawer cast of 45 characters. He makes the most of the exquisite production values and wisely has chosen George Steel as his director of photography. The epic battle sequences between the French and the Russians vividly convey the abysmal pointlessness of war.
"Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life is impossible."
— Leo Tolstoy
In 1805 Russia, we meet the three main characters whose lives, choices, and destinies are deeply intertwined. Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano) is a free-thinking young aristocrat who initially supports Napoleon Bonaparte's progressive efforts to build an empire. He wants to do good and make the world a better place for the poor. Pierre has no idea what lies in store for him given that he is the illegitimate son of one of Russia's wealthiest men.
Natasha Rostova (Lily James) is a pretty and enthusiastic young woman born into a minor noble's family. She yearns for a love that will sweep her off her feet and transform her life.
Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) is Pierre's best friend. He is unsure about his plans for the future so he has enlisted as a soldier to fight against Napoleon (Mathieu Kassovitz) in the Tsar's army. His wealth and self-confidence make him a formidable figure in polite society.
"There is no greatness, where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth."
— Leo Tolstoy
Pierre's life is radically altered when he inherits his rich father's estate. Helene (Tuppence Middleton), a scheming, selfish, and vicious beauty, convinces him that she loves him and so they are married. Almost immediately, she begins having sex with other men. Pierre challenges one of her lovers, Fedya Dolokov (Tom Burke), to a duel; surprisingly, he wounds his opponent and feels vindicated. But his wife has already found another lover, Boris Drubetskoi (Aneurin Barnard).
Another manipulative figure is Vassily (Stephen Rea) who tries to set up a union between his reptilian son Anatole (Callum Turner) and Andrei's socially hampered sister Marya (Jessie Buckley). Andrei plunges into despair when his wife dies in childbirth; he feels responsible and guilty over his shabby treatment of her.
"Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them."
― Leo Tolstoy
The course of love doesn't work for some and clicks for others. Nikolai (Jack Lowden), Natasha's brother proposes to Sonya (Aisling Loftus) but their relationship faces many challenges. Natasha attends a festive ballroom dance and experiences the magical elation of true love while in Andrei's arms. They both are convinced that they have met the right person. They get engaged but Andrei's stubborn and domineering father (Jim Broadbent) orders his son to take a year abroad to test their feelings.
"Pure and complete sorrow is as impossible as pure and complete joy."
— Leo Tolstoy
It is a long time to wait and Natasha grows impatient and yearns for sex. She does an erotic gypsy dance at a public gathering and when the hedonist Anatole, egged on by his sister Helene, declares in a letter his passionate love for her, she succumbs. She is ready to elope with him until Pierre informs her that he is a scoundrel who already has a wife in Poland.
The impact of war on these characters moves front and center from episode five on in the series. France breaks the peace and Napoleon's army sweeps across Russia. In the flight from Moscow, some characters come together again in time to make amends and seek forgiveness. Others meet up on the battlefield. Pierre, trying to experience war, goes to the front and is captured by the French. Among the prisoners is a peasant (Adrian Rawlins) who through his simple but meaningful example becomes a mentor for him. Will this good aristocrat finally find and get what he desires?
"Love is the essential faculty of the human soul. We love not because it is our interest to do so but because love is the essence of who we are, because we cannot but love."
— Leo Tolstoy
One of the major triumphs of War & Peace is that the characters have both noble and flawed ideals and emotions. From the opening scenes where we meet Pierre as an unconventional young man seeking meaning until the closing scenes where he has survived a lifetime of both extreme privilege and suffering, he elicits our empathy.
Andrei's fatal flaw is his inability to forgive, which goes along with his closed-off nature and inability to stand up for love against his father's need to control him. And, it is Natasha's immense curiosity about intimacy and her impatience that serves to bring her a long period of suffering. But, in the end, love surprises her.
"Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone."
— Leo Tolstoy
Special features on the DVD include featurettes on "From Page to Screen," "The Read Through," "Making the Music," "Count Rostov's Dance," "Rundale Palace," and "What is War & Peace?"