War and Peace finale review: a moving and powerful last hurrah

After eight years of battles (and a little bit of peace), the fate of our heroes, heroines and villains has finally been settled in a flawless piece of television, says Ben Dowell

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**SPOILER ALERT! Do NOT keep reading if you haven’t seen the final episode of War and Peace**

The curtain has come down on this epic story and what a journey it has been.

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The big heart of Adrian Edmondson’s sybarite Count Ilya Rostov finally gave out during tonight’s final episode, throwing poor Natasha, his daughter, into even greater despair after the death of her beloved Andrei.

But at least when James Norton’s character gave up the ghost he delivered a beautiful eulogy on the meaning of life – one echoing Tolstoy’s own philosophy.

“The world wants us to love it… and it is not hard, it’s easy,” he said in one of his final utterances, reflecting on the beauty of a buzzing fly.

But, of course, love cannot conquer all and he finally gave in to his injuries in the first of many major – and heartbreaking – moments in this extended final episode. The Russian Orthodox priests were certainly kept busy with their funeral work.

Fortunately Pierre escaped the Grim Reaper’s scythe. He finally reached the end of a journey which has probably been the most epic, even by the standards of this monumental story.

The man who entered the story praising Napoleon became someone who believed he had some kind of divine mission to assassinate the French leader. That didn’t come to much in the conquered city of Moscow. Big-hearted P couldn’t help trying to save a mistreated Muscovite and was thrown into the slammer, escaping the firing squad by the skin of his nose (or perhaps that should be a whisker from the bushy beard he had grown).

He gleaned acceptance and greater understanding of the world from the kind-hearted peasant with a dog who shared his meagre morsels of food – a moment which, when he finally found freedom, he replicated. Instead of wolfing down his first meal back in his palace he chewed carefully and broke down. Another brilliant moment.

Natasha too grew into maturity in a performance which, over the series, has established Lily James as a serious and accomplished actress of high standing.

A teenager when the series begins, but desperate to grow up and experience the world, she finished up married to Pierre but bearing misfortune along the way.

Their coming together was another beautiful scene with Paul Dano capturing the hesitancy of his earlier years with a new found wisdom and courage. Finally he could hope for Natasha’s heart and at least have some expectation that his affections would be returned.

“He looks fresh from the bath house, all pure and clean,” remarked Marya before he popped the question. But Pierre has undergone a rebirth more spiritual than physical and it has been dazzling to watch.

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In an episode packed with action we witnessed Napoleon’s petulant fury that the Russians had abandoned their capital in a brutal ploy (rather smart as it turned out) to cut off his supply lines and starve his troops into retreat. But such has been our absorption in the the lives of these people that even the great French tyrant felt like a small and reduced figure when considered in the context of the lives of people whose struggles we have lived and breathed over the last six episodes.

Among those figures was poor Sonya (Aisling Loftus) who had to take losing her Nikolai after he fell into the arms of the woman he truly loved – Marya (Jessie Buckley). And even Dolokhov (Tom Burke) found redemption, patrolling the wilds of Moscow, picking off the French as they fled. It was he who found and saved his former love rival Pierre – a different man to the drunken cad who stole Helene in the series’ early dramatic skirmishes.

Talking of which, poor Helene got her comeuppance in the most horrific way possible. The wife who cuckolded Pierre took an overdose of medicine designed to induce abortion and her end was grim and bloody.

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As a whole, this series has felt flawless. Andrew Davies’ superlative adaptation has distilled the essence of this magnificent sprawling book with consummate skill, capturing the intensity of feeling, gliding effortlessly over the complex plotting and getting right to the dramatic meat of the story with a cliffhanger every episode. It’s been cracking TV. Bravo everyone involved!

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