Why Paul Dano is the beating heart of War and Peace

The Little Miss Sunshine actor has outshone his co-stars and given the BBC adaptation some serious soul, says Kasia Delgado

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Has Paul Dano got under your skin too? Are you also frantically checking his IMDB to find out where you can see him next? Because it’s been a very long time since an actor has had quite this effect on me.  And it’s clear, from talking to the many Sunday night War and Peace devotees in my life, that the 31-year-old New Yorker is causing a stir with (women, men and teenagers) across the nation.

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As Pierre Bezukhov, the awkward, internally conflicted and charming central figure in the BBC1 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic, Dano has made a great period drama into something heart-achingly wonderful.

It’s no coincidence that it was after episode three, in which Dano outdid himself, that the War and Peace sceptics became believers. Friends and colleagues and family members who had been slightly disappointed with the first two instalments, were suddenly hooked as the show really found its feet. And even those who had taken time to complain about the really trivial (and untrue?) stuff — mumbling, too much sex, too much cutting from the original book —  seemed placated.

While it was a lovely moment when Andrei (James Norton) revealed that he was in love with Natasha (Lily James), it was Pierre’s “go get her” speech that really gave us goosebumps. Because as he smiled at his friend’s happiness, the glimmer of grief in his eyes, the pain of unrequited love, was almost unbearable. And this week, when Pierre, bleary eyed and unfit for war, abandoned his idealism to bathe in Napoleon’s bloodbath, he was the most mesmerising character on-screen.

For some reason, it seemed surprising at first that Dano should be the standout star of it all. Known — or unknown — primarily as an American indie actor, Dano hasn’t played many leading roles so Brits might not have recognised him as easily as they would Happy Valley’s James Norton, or Downton Abbey’s Lily James. He wasn’t the obvious poster boy for a Sunday night period drama on BBC1.

But when you think of the roles Dano has played, it’s suddenly obvious that he’d be the beating heart of Andrew Davies’ impressive adaptation. As the teenager refusing to speak in Little Miss Sunshine,  the preacher Eli in There Will be Blood or the sadistic plantation boss in 12 Years a Slave, his quiet brilliance has stolen the show in each film he’s been in. And in War and Peace, he’s outshining his co-stars. They’re good, but he’s better.

Pierre is a notoriously hard part to dramatise —  a character who doesn’t really know himself at all, with an internal struggle so tumultuous, that he’s both tragic and funny at the same time. Yet Dano manages to make Tolstoy’s strange Pierre feel like a real, universal, human being as relevant in 2016 as in the 19th century — in a way that Andrei and Natasha just aren’t.

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So please, Paul Dano, do more British TV. Because the idea of Sunday nights without you on our screens is almost as tragic as Tolstoy’s brutal epic.