Adapting a book for the small screen is never easy and when it’s an epic tome like Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace – with numerous characters, relationships and settings – the task is that bit tougher.
That’s probably why the Andrew Davies’ take on the Russian classic seemed to trundle along just a tad for the first fortnight. Setting a stage with so many characters and backdrops was always going to take time, during which a slightly impatient audience could develop more of an affinity for a single white horse than any of the numerous new names and faces.
The animal was killed off far too early, in fairness. But in the frozen woods and beautiful ballrooms of episode three, we finally found reason to invest in the human characters, and discovered why War and Peace was more than worth the wait.
The sinister duel in the snow between Paul Dano’s Pierre and Tom Burke’s Dolokhov set the stage for an episode that finally opened our eyes to the brilliance and scale of Tolstoy’s tale – and proved what the BBC can deliver on Sunday nights when given the right tools.
It’s rumoured that War and Peace cost somewhere in the region of £2 million per episode to produce, and the show was made by the BBC in partnership with the Weinstein Company and BBC Worldwide – but in the third episode we saw just how good a lavish BBC drama can be.
Dano’s Pierre found a third dimension, maturing into a man who wasn’t afraid to tell his wayward wife (Tuppence Middleton) what he really thought of her, before embarking on a journey of self discovery that made him realise what was most important in life: “Bread and cheese and wine in moderation”.
His best pal Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) – who had previously been slammed on Twitter for having less emotional range than that dearly departed horse – came into his own, too. The death of his wife freed him from a 19th century “He’s Just Not That Into You”, allowing him to drop the death wish, spread his wings, embrace the simple life, and fall head over heels for Lily James’ Natasha.
Freed from the shackles of her fringe (that’s SO last century), Natasha blossomed as her family was forced to move to the country to cover the costs of her brother’s gambling debts. And as soon as she and Andrei locked eyes across a crowded, er, field, romance was afoot.
After all, every period drama needs a little love, right? Up until the moment the pair met we’d spent weeks watching women tell men they were putting a ring on it, boys shrug off their childhood sweethearts and husbands risk life and limb on the battlefield, hoping to be killed so they wouldn’t have to come home to their wives.
Andrei and Natasha’s wonderful waltz through the Russian winter palace’s ballroom (which wouldn’t have looked out of place on Strictly) was everything a period drama romance fan could have asked for.
It was beautifully interspersed with shots that told other elements of the story, the pacing, choreography and acting combined to deliver a sumptuous Sunday night treat that set even the coldest hearts racing.
No wonder the waltz earned a 10 from Len, Darcy, Bruno, and even Craig.
— BBC One (@BBCOne) January 17, 2016
As Andrei told a heartbroken Pierre that he’d fallen in love with his dear Natasha, Dolokhov set his sights on best pal Nikolai’s childhood sweetheart Sonya, and Aneurin Barnard’s Boris FINALLY spoke, we actually went to bed eager to find out what dramatic twists and turns await us this week – and, trust us, Tolstoy has plenty more up his sleeve.
His Russia is a dramatic, passionate and intriguing place, and if enduring two weeks of slightly laboured scene setting is what it takes to get to the heart of it, then it’s been well worth the wait.