Made by BBC Cymru Wales Drama, in partnership with The Weinstein Company and BBC Worldwide/Lookout Point, “War & Peace” is a classic production of one of the most famous stories of all time. In 1805 when we first meet Pierre (Paul Dano), Natasha (Lily James), and Andrei (James Norton), they are all part of St Petersburg’s glittering elite, but are fired-up with youthful ambition to find meaning in their lives. Kind-hearted but awkward Pierre, the illegitimate son of Russia’s richest man, wants to change the world for the better. Handsome and gallant Andrei, frustrated with the superficiality of his life, seeks a purpose, while the beautiful and spirited Natasha is searching for true love. At the same time Napoleon’s army edges ever closer to Russia’s borders. As everything they thought they knew is questioned, Pierre, Andrei and Natasha find themselves in a time when Russian society is about to change forever.
Leo Tolstoy's 'War & Peace' is one of those classics of literature that most people never finish; the primary reasons being its difficulty, dryness, length, and Russian-ness. I, too, have a hard time getting into novels that bear those descriptions, so I've never attempted to read it. That said, the miniseries is a pleasant surprise.
The story follows three principal characters through one of Russia's hardest times, but it kicks off with a massive ensemble of important characters that are crucial to setting up the main story of the series. The first three episodes are mostly used to develop the characters, set up the scenarios, paint the economic and polital climates of the day (early 1800s) and put the main events of the series into motion. If you can make it through the congested and, at times, confusing first three episodes, then the payoff is undeniably worth it.
Paul Dano ('Love & Mercy'), Lily James ('Cinderella') and James Norton ('Rush') play the three principals. Dano plays Pierre Bezukhov, the drunken, filandering son of a noble and wealthy Count. There's greatness within him, but he wastes it on the conquests of an adolescent. He doesn't have the courage to do what he knows is morally correct and responsible – that is, until his father dies. Pierre is then left with a vast wealth, many estates and servants, and a new title: Count Bezukhov. With his instant power, high society sets him in her sights and the manupulations begin. Power plays are constantly being attempted around him, especially as he begins the search for a spouse. It's not long before he's fooled into marrying a wealth- and power-hungry woman (Tuppence Middleton). Just as he starts to accept his responsibilities, he finds himself in a depressingly loveless marriage with a woman who only married him for his wealth and status.
Lily James plays Natasha Rostova, the beautiful and humble daughter of naïve, kind and wealthy parents who haven't made the best investiment decisions and find their fortune slipping away. Being a romantic, Natasha is in love with the notion of being in love. Pierre is one of her very best and longest friends. The two adore one another. It could easily turn into love, but it's obvious that Pierre doesn't want to tarnish her purity, so he never expresses a romantic interest in her. Natasha's innocence makes her blind to the reality that surrounds her. She's unaware of Pierre's lifestyle, her parent's rising financial concerns and the fact that her older brother Nikolai (Jack Lowden) is a troublemaker that's teetering due to his pride.
James Norton plays Andrei Bolkonsky, a handsome and charming prince of Russia. Andrei and Pierre have been longtime friends. As the two came of age and conciously made decisions as to how they would handle their responsibilities, they went in opposite directions. Pierre went the route of seeking pleasure, while Andrei did what he thought he was supposed to do. He married a woman that he never truly loved, only to find himself in a miserable state. His misery didn't stem from his wife, but from the idea that he'd never be able to give her the same unconditional adoration and love that she freely gave to him. To escape it, he volunteed to become a leader in Russia's army, which was a doomed decision considering Russia's on the brink of war with the invading Frenchman Napoleon Bonaparte conquering bordering nations.
Each of these character profiles explain the set-up for the grand story that lies ahead. Knowing these characters in such great detail makes the ensuing drama all that more impactful. Yes – it contains drama and scandal, but it's not presented in the soap opera fashion that 'Downton Abbey' so heavily relied upon. It's dramatic; not melodramatic.
Not only do our three leading actors deliver exceptionally strong performances that range in intensity and dynamics, but the supporting cast does too. You wouldn't expect anything less from actors Gillian Anderson, Brian Cox, Stephen Rea, and Jim Broadbent, but those aren't the supporting actors that I refer to. Tuppence Middleton, who I hadn't seen until 'War & Peace,' plays her unlikeable part so well that your disdain for her will be genuine. Callum Turner, who plays her incestuous brother, also plays a highly effective horrible role. While there's not a saving aspect to either character, they'll each make you sypathize with them at least once in the series, which is something very difficult to pull off considering how much you'll loathe them.
Jessie Buckley, who is absolutely unknown in the U.S., plays Andrei's younger sister, Marya. Unmarried, kind, selfless and always seeking ways to help her fellow man, she's absolutely oppressed in her home by her hateful, bigot father (Broadbent). When Andrei leaves for war, she's left to take the brunt of her father's cruel and unrestrained verbal abuse entirely on her own. Your heart will break for her thanks to Buckley's powerful performance.
'War & Peace' isn't a fast-moving series, but it ramps up the deeper you get into it – especially as you become more invested in the characters. It's story and message span everything from political and social responsibilies to love and war, and everything in between. It's hearty, intelligent, enjoyable, well-acted and very well-written. If you don't dare give the 1,000+ page book a chance, then consider BBC's excellent miniseries.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Although Lifetime domestically aired 'War & Peace' in four two-hour blocks (with commercials), the Weinstein-distributed Blu-ray divvies up all 357 minutes of it into eight 45-minute episodes – four are found on one disc; the other four and the special features are found on another. Both discs are Region A BD-50s that are housed in a two-disc blue Elite keepcase. Upon popping either of the discs into your player, the only pre-menu videos to run are unskippable Anchor Bay and Weinstein reels.
With the story, locations and cinematography of 'War & Peace' being as beautiful as they are, it's a bummer that the video quality isn't demo-worthy. Ranging from brilliant to sloppy, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode isn't as great as it should be.
There are countless shots of gorgeous imagery throughout the miniseries. Meadows covered with dense low fog. Character silhouettes in front of wildly colorful sunrises. Each episode features many of them. Most are done glorious justice by the video quality, but some carry the appearance of low-res imagery. Instead of featuring sharp, crisp and fine lines, edges are jagged and pixelated, as if the original footage had been cropped and enlarged to fill the screen. This jagged nuissance pops up throughout the series and will grab your attention each time it does. It's not just limited to wide landscape shots either. Even mid-range shots can feature it. When each episode opens, the "War & Peace" graphic even has it around the edges. In a day and age where high-def is a standard, this is an odd flaw to see so abundantly.
In addition, black levels and contrast can vary. One shot in a darkened setting may feature murky blacks, while the next may be rich and deep. Depending on the settings, some full scenes have blown out contrast with blaringly bright lighting. It's not apparent if these flaws are the result of a compression error or not. Three-plus hours of video on each BD-50 disc shouldn't cause such problems. Because they're sporadic and inconsistent, I tend to place the blame on the source content and not the transfer.
With all of my bickering, you're probably thinking that the overall video quality of 'War & Peace' is hideous, but it's really not. The series features many extremely strong aspects. In close shots, facial features are clearly apparent. Individual hairs in Paul Dano's fake beard are visible, as are the blemishes on Lily James' jawline. Wardrobe textures show the high quality of costumes used on-set. During the high society social settings, costumes also reveal a great vibrancy in colors. Nature settings also feature wonderful colorization. These aspects are so strong that it's a pity that all of the video couldn't carry this strength.
The most immediately apparent strength to this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is the music. Spanning many styles – from the stereotypical grand Russian male vocal chorus to seemingly simple and delicate light scoring – it's always dynamic and full. There's a great richness and resonance to the music. It spans all of channels and fittingly accompanies the on-screen imagery, settings and mood.
The vocal track is equally solid. All actors speak in their native dialects (as opposed to faking Russian or French accents), so no line of dialog is lost in the mix. Core dialog is based out of the front channels and is well-mixed amongst the music and effects. Background chatter heard in social settings (like parties and crowds) are playfully mixed in the approriate surround channels.
The effects mixing is good, but the settings and locations don't offer enough opportunities for the overall effects mix to wow. When the occasion calls for it – battlefields, duels, chaotic frontline hospitals, ransacked city streets – a great environmental ambiance becomes subtly prevalent. Sound effects pop up all across the sound space.
The six featurettes can be triggered individually or collectively as a 14-minute whole via a play-all option.
Period dramas can be tricky. All too often, they slip into melodrama, the unenjoyable stuff of soap operas. Leo Tolstoy's 'War & Peace' is known as a masterpiece, but it's also known for being an absolutely tedious and lengthy affair. Fortunately, BBC's eight-part miniseries adaptation defies the genre norm and the book's reputation. Although featuring two or three highly congested initial episodes that pave the path for the series, what follows is absolutely worth it. The character-driven story is strong due to the writing and the highly capable cast. The final product is so powerful and rich that this series is one that I'll gladly revisit every year or two. The video quality suffers from several inconsistent flaws that we don't commonly see in other new Blu-ray releases, but it also features great strenths. The audio quality is consistenly good. Unfortunately, there's a major lack in special features. Totaling 14 minutes, six featurettes are included, but each feels like a promotional EPK than anything substantial. With a series this fantastic and noteworthy, a cleaned-up and expanded version in the future would be totally worth the double-dip.