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TV Quickshots #25

War and Peace (BBC; 2016)

The BBC’s new serialized adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling epic novel of aristocratic love and suffering in the time of Russia’s war against Napoleon was a massive critical and popular hit in Britain and has also aired on this side of the Atlantic on A&E, Lifetime, and the History Channel. And for good reason: cannily scripted by Andrew Davies (best known for penning the widely-beloved Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice for the Beeb in the mid-1990s) and directed ably by Tom Harper, this was lavish, spectacular, wondrously acted and tremendously well-conceived television that did fine credit to what may be the greatest novel ever written.

At six-and-a-half hours, this War and Peace took less than half of the time to tell its panoramic decade-long story as the BBC’s last kick at this particular Russian literary can back in 1972. Indeed, in running time, approach, sensibility, and aesthetic swirl, the 2016 BBC War and Peace is closest to Sergei Bondarchuk’s seminal Soviet-era film version, although it focuses its emotional surges for more shameless impact than the 1967 seven-plus-hour multi-part movie did, invested with a certain chilly Communist calculation as it was. Of course, seeing as war-and-peaceBondarchuk’s marathon production spanned six years, allowed characters to age noticeably as they would have over a 10 years of the novel’s events, and had more extensive access to Russian historic sites and heritage props than did the new BBC version (not to mention the virtually unlimited funding of a national propaganda system), its authenticity cannot really be challenged. Bondarchuk also allowed both the narrative of Napoleon’s attack on Russia in 1812 and the central romantic triangle between Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (played here by James Norton), Count Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano), and Natasha Rostova (Lily James) more room to breathe and develop (at the expense of the novel’s other rich subplots, it must be said). If this new War and Peace has a weakness, it lies in the rapid, seemingly coincidental stacking-up of dramatic incident resulting from the otherwise laudable decision to include as much of the book material as possible. Things happen at a pace that can seem almost frantic at times, and emotional heft can sometimes be a casualty of this arrangement.

If this is a weakness of the Davies/Harper War and Peace, it has very few others. Magnificently shot and designed on the basis of art history, suffused with telling detail and a certain Anglicized version of Russian robustness, with an utterly fantastic score full of resonant Eastern Orthodox choral music, War and Peace is a technically handsome production that rises into transcendence at moments both expected and unexpected. It includes and nicely stages more of the novel than I would have thought possible, including a higher percentage of the subplot of Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden), Marya Bolkonskaya (Jessie Buckley), and her father the old Prince Bolkonsky (Jim Broadbent) than any adaptation of similar length has yet managed to allocate space for. Broadbent, who has never been anything less than enjoyable onscreen, is an inspired choice to embody the old Prince’s peevish cruelty and strained levity, but Buckley is truly remarkable, finding the glowing soul inside Marya’s sadness and piety that the boyish Nikolai falls for (Lowden is overwhelmed by his hairdo and hussar’s wardrobe). The wrenching but idiosyncratic moment between Marya and her dying father, maybe my favourite single episode in the book, even makes the cut, though its affect falls prey to the rushed pace of the plot.

Still, War and Peace is about the central romance and its harsh contrast with the destructive war, and this BBC serial is stronger with the former than the latter. With a CG assist, the battles have a convincing scope, though they aren’t a scratch on Bondarchuk’s breathtaking sweep (not that the Beeb could muster the Red Army for their cameras, mind you). Norton, Dano, and James are all excellent, and their key moments, their hopes, joys, pains, and epiphanies, are sympathetically and movingly rendered. The climax of the triangle receives the pause of beautiful reflection that much of the series lacks and begs for, and along with the series’ closing scene comes closest to visually approximating Tolstoy’s fair-minded philosophy of big-hearted humanism.

What this War and Peace gets most vitally correct about Tolstoy’s classic is the flip-side of its greatest weakness. The enforced haste of its compression also gives this century-and-a-half-old story a verve and dramatic momentum that no filmed adaptation has quite managed to capture. Despite its 1,200-page sprawl and frequent digressions into amateurish historical theorizing, what strikes the reader about War and Peace is its surprising vitality and vividness. Dialogue crackles with wit and emotional intensity, hunts and sleigh rides are interludes of exhilaration, battle sequences as are frightening and adrenaline-fueled as Hollywood action movies. The BBC pares down War and Peace to its essentials (plus a little more), and the result is not only lavish and spectacular but potently real and enervated. A new high bar has been set for historical-literary drama on television, and it’s an effort not to be missed.

Scott & Bailey (ITV; 2011-Present)

Scott & Bailey is a sturdy police procedural made of superficially similarly feminist materiel as the much more gripping and challenging The Fall. The series runs the travails of the contemporary British woman through a cop-shop setting and the populist mainstream melodrama milieu of Northern England, specifically Manchester in this case.

As such, it stars a former Coronation Street mainstay, Suranne Jones, as Detective Constable Rachel Bailey, who investigates cases for the Major Incident Team of the Manchester Metropolitan Police (a force which does not exist) alongside sister-in-arms DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) under the command of DCI Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore). Jones as Bailey seems to have transplanted a set of soap opera personal problems to this more straight copper drama, struggling to keep her police work on track between an unhealthy relationship with a duplicitous solicitor (Rupert Graves) in Series 1, a troubled brother in Series 2, and a lower-class mother in Series 3. Scott, meanwhile, tries to balance work and raising her kids while enduring her maddening husband and fending off persistent advances from office colleague Andy Roper (Nicholas Gleaves). And, of course, there are always murders to solve, too.

Scott & Bailey may telegraph its murder mysteries and indeed most of its plot turns, but the appeal of these television packages tends to lie in the chemistry of their leads (which is reasonably ample) and the crackle of its writing (which is snappy enough). Scott and Bailey, and Murray as well, encounter any number of patriarchal and misogynistic obstacles and irritations, from the criminals they investigate as well as from the men they work with, date, marry, are related to, or befriend. They parry and sometimes painfully absorb these blows with a particular strength of character and thick skin that England’s popular culture has long associated with the grey industrial North, yes. But Scott and Bailey build up a collective defence from each other’s support and competence as well. Like the stockaded early medieval castle that their combined names in the show’s title puns upon, this female detective team fortifies itself against external threats and nuisances.

Categories: Literature, Reviews, Television
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