Or, Gone with the Balalaikas.
Random thoughts on the latest television dramatization of War and Peace which showed on free-to-air here in Australia in September 2017 and has been repeated many times since.
In the early ‘seventies, I went through a ‘Russian’ phase, wading patiently and pensively through the greatest literary hits of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Solzhenitsyn. They seemed to suit my temperament during the cold, damp winter months as I journeyed back and forth on the London Undergound to mundane and monotonous temp jobs. I recall watching all seven hours of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic ‘sixties adaptation in one overnight sitting at at an art house cinema in Bloomsbury Square in 1973. But I fell asleep during the thunderous battle of Borodino. The BBC crammed its 1972 adaptation of War and Peace into fifteen hours over twenty episodes – the film that shot Anthony Hopkins and Robert Powell to stardom.
How on earth do you compress some 1,500 close-typed pages into just six one-hour episodes, as the Beeb’s latest period piece does? A lot, obviously, has to go.
So, out go all the long expositions and naval-gazing ruminations. There no need to ponder much on the inner manifestations of the ‘Russian soul’, whatever that might be. The philosophizing that was left in felt lightweight and incongruous against the splendor of the social scene, the rural vista, the battlefields, and great historical events. Hence Andre’s deepandmeaningfull thoughts on glory, and latterly, on bucolic visions, seemed a tad intrusive. Pierre’s thoughts on freedom. freemasonry and, latterly, after his near-death experiences, on brotherly love and the simple life, appear lightweight and cloying.
And to suit our twenty-first century tastes, in comes some glamorous naughtiness – a surfeit of sexy bits which old Leo Tolstoy would probably have loved but would never have committed to print, with some poetic license (or licentiousness), bare thighs and cleavage, so that we well and truly got the message. It was, nonetheless a “polite society” sans filth, blood, and profanity.
What Tolstoy left to surmise and imagination, this down-sized saga leaves no sheet unturned. Helene and Anatole Kuragin really do appear to have had it off together, and she does indeed bonk Nikolai’s mates Dolokhov and Drubetskoy, and sundry others – she was quite clearly the Petrograd bike. And, of course, she comes to a bad, hallucinogenic, and sanguinary end. The families are well drawn, and quite humorously depicted. The scheming, naughty Kuragins; the affectionate and lighthearted Rostovs, headed up by their bumbling, adoring and ultimately impecunious papa – well played by comedian Adrian Edmondson. The uptight, and undemonstrative Bolkonskys, with Jim Broadbent giving a masterclass in fine acting – “best in show” indeed. We get a fair if Kubrikesqe ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ picture of Pierre Bezukhov’s wicked, dissolute lifestyle, and his faltering, stumbling road to redemption.
So, does this truncation of the big book work? I would say yes. The story flowed, the various story-lines held together, and it was relatively easy to keep track of the characters by their appearance if not by their long names. The best way to judge a serialization is by the question: do you finish an episode looking forward to the next? And the answer is yes.
As for the cast, it appears like anyone who was anybody in British television drama or comedy, looked good in historical costume and was not in Game of Thrones, got a gig and a chance to do Napoleonic dress-ups – with the exception perhaps of Colin Firth, Aiden Turner, John Simm, Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman, Olivia Colman and Claire Foy.
Lily James is gorgeous in an elfin, ingenue way. Although her Natasha Rostova looks and behaves like an eighteen year old throughout, and not the thirteen years old who ages in years and wisdom as portrayed by Tolstoy. She sang beautifully, and she sure can dance. The famous Natasha’s Dance scene was nicely done if too brief. It was over too quickly and failed to show how important this particular scene was to Tolstoy ; in the book, the Rostovs retire to a wooden hut at the end of a day’s hunting, where folk songs are played to the balalaika. Natasha dances to a song, but it is not a waltz or polka she is doing – instinctively, she dances like a peasant girl. The Russian soil is in her blue blood. Nevertheless, I do like Lily James. And so, it seems so the powers that be: she’s doing quite alright these days with lead roles in Darkest Hour, Mama Mia! Here we go again (singing and dancing again), and Yesterday.
Paul Dano, the slim, young, scheming, preacher of There Will Be Blood, as Pierre Bezukov? Still slim and young looking, though “kinda funny looking” as they say in Fargo-speak. But portraying the tall, fat, shortsighted, dissolute and bumbling Pffierre? Amazingly, it seems to have worked. His is a credible performance, although his “niceness” to the Rostovs and Bolkonskys, and his transformation to all-round good guy could be quite irritating. Inept, opinionated, inadequate, and out of his depth both romantically and socially. My favourite Pierre moment in the book is when he resolves to liberate or lighten the burden on his serfs – a subject close to Tolstoy’s heart – and how his steward circumvents his wishes. This was not even touched on in the film.
Jim Broadbent as the crusty, cranky old curmudgeon Bolkonsky Senior was a tour de force. He stole every scene he was in, and although he was not like I imagined from the book – less ascetic, more rough-edged – he was the best character in the film.
Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders’s other half, and bad boy of The Young Ones and Bottom, was an unexpected delight as the genial but incompetent Rostov patriarch. He played it for laughs, and his decline under financial pressures and family tragedy was nicely handled.
James Norton’s wannabe martial hero Andrei Bolkonsky was a stitched up, uptight, frustrating, and irritating jerk. You wanted to give him a good shake. And that’s just how Tolstoy would have liked it. He looked good, especially in uniform, and carried himself just as a stitched up, uptight jerk would. I guess that makes his apotheosis and death all the more interesting. So nice that everyone got to say their goodbyes. The Gladiatoresqe ‘out of body’, vanishing into into the Russian sunset sequence as he passed on was a bit too much, but.
Jessie Buckey as his sister Princess Marya was excellent. Whilst she was in no way as plain and unprepossessing as Tolstoy painted her, her “ugly duckling” transformation was lovely to behold. I actually felt happy that she finally found happiness. She had to lose her father and brother to find herself, and also, find Nikolai, the naive and gallant hussar. Irish Jessie has been making quite a name for herself of late as a country and western singer, and in major roles in the dubious Taboo and chilling Chernobyl.
Jack Lowden’s Nikolai, Natasha’s air-headed, profligate brother, was very well cast. A selfish prick who takes his folks for granted (and bankrupts them for bad measure), and treats pretty, poor, patient, pauper Sonya terribly, he has awful taste in friends (except for loyal Denisov) and plays a terrible game of cards,. But he sings beautifully (his duet with Natasha is a delight), and looks great in uniform.
Tuppence Middleton played Helene Kuragin as the soap-opera bad girl. She looked good, took her clothes off, wore see-through fashions, and camped it up (would Tolstoy have let her out like that, I wonder? He would doubtless of appreciated her “indoors,). And you couldn’t wait for Pierre to kick her out.
Minor characters were presented – with the exception of Matthieu Kannovitz’s Napoleon – a very poor caricature. I liked Brian Cox’s Kutuzov, but for me, he will always be Dalgeish of Deadwood. And Aneurin Barnard was excellent as the opportunistic Boris Drubetskoy. His meeting with Napoleon was a hoot. He is a great actor, having portrayed Cilla Black’s Bobby in Cilla, David Bailey in We’ll Take Manhattan. Rebecca Front was very good as his scheming, impecunious and irritating Mama – well remembered from the comedies The Thick of It and Nighty Night, and still, to a degree, playing it for laughs – even when securing Pierre’s inheritance by wrestling a soon-to-be disappearing will from the hands of his avaricious relatives.
Stephen Rea played Prince Vassily Kuragin with a supercilious lugubriousness, whilst Callum Turner portrays his son Anatole as a card-board cut-out rake. Gillian Anderson, looked resplendent as society hostess Anna Pavlovna Scherer, did not have very much to do except play, well, a society hostess. And lastly, there was Tom Burke’s over-the-top bad-boy Fedor Dolokhov. As Tolstoy himself put it: “There are three things I love to do!’ he roared. ‘Fight, drink, and I can’t remember the other one … “ And: “I think you’re an absolute ruffian,’ Helene tutted, branding him ‘disgusting.’
One judges the success of a visual dramatization by how well renders the original’s iconic scenes and set-pieces. Here then is a brief critique.
The famous, plot-setting grand ball was nicely done – the set, the clothes, and the dancing, building up well to Nat and Andy’s meeting and floor show. Natasha’s Dance at the Rostov dacha, so iconic and important to Tolstoy’s narodnik sympathies, was, however, disappointingly undercooked. Bezukhov and Dolakhov’s duel in the snow , was deftly done, demonstrating what a foolish, deadly practice this was. Pierre’s Freemason initiation was risably pythonesqe – all signs and handshakes and overdone dramatics. Why bother?
The French Invasion of 1812, heralded Halley’s Comet, as a vast army crossing the Neimen, Boney’s fateful Rubicon, is melodramatically underwhelming but perhaps, to be otherwise would have required a very big budget. and yet, the battle of Borodino – I was awake for this one – was probably the best screen portrayal of this bloodbath that I have seen. The French occupation of Moscow was cliched and cursory, whilst the burning of the city, always difficult portray in film, came across as cut-price CGI. The disastrous French retreat from Moscow, prisoners in tow, was likewise difficult to portray, but somehow, by thinking small and focusing on the micro-dramas of the debacle, and with some cold-weather channeling of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, it actually worked.
And finally, when the tumult and the shouting ended, the captains and the kings departed, and the characters have met their various ends or apotheoses, what of that bucolic happy families ending?
As Tolstoy himself was to say, in the opening lines of another weighty tome, all happy families are alike. The rural family barbecue was a derivative denouement. The surviving members of the three families, now three generations, gather together after all their trials and tribulations in an idyllic rustic lifestyle bought and paid for with Bezukhov and Bolkonsky money. It is reminiscent of the final scene in Cold Mountain, Shenandoah, How the West was Won, The Sound of Music, and many others in which ‘Good’ eventually triumphs over despair, deprivation and disaster – you know how it goes: “We’re so glad all the bad stuff is over and done – may our lives now be pleasant and delightful”. Or as Tint Tim (of Dickens’ fame, not Tulips) declaimed, “God bless us all!”
But, Tolstoy’s drawn-out, ponderous and indeed, anticlimactic and awful “getting of wisdom” finale would not have worked on screen. “Thankfully!” many would declare. And anyhow, isn’t this how the classic hero’s quest is meant to end: with revelation redemption, reunion, and a kind of contentment. The old Count, in his mystical, mythic way, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
And after six hours of pretty good entertainment, who am I to blow against the wind?
Here’s what the papers said:
It was July 1805, and all St Petersburg was concerned about the advance of Bonaparte. Though not so much as to cancel a soiree at which Pierre, a bastard by birth but not by nature, was to be introduced to Russian society.
“Pierre is not one of nous,” several guests observed. “Not only does he forget choses but he doesn’t speak Frussian. Et he drinks even plus que nous.”
Prince Andrew, a bastard by nature but not by birth, cleared his throat delicately. “As a member of the officer class, I have decided to join the army,” he declared.
“I shall join the hussars,” Nicholas declared, while his sister Natasha eyed up potential husbands. They might become rather scarce.
Pierre checked his fob watch. The pages were turning faster than he expected and his father had now died. “I seem to find myself the richest man in Russia.”
War proved more terrible than either Andrew or Nicholas has expected. Dreams as well as men got killed. “How I embrace death,” Andrew murmured as the battle of Austerlitz raged. “Pas so vite,” said Napoleon. “Permettez-moi de vous donner une main. Now I must wash my chubby little body.”
“I’m home,” said Andrew as his wife died in childbirth.
Pierre felt the burden of expectation and married Helene but, helas, she had a bit on the cote. The anguish was intolerable, but Pierre felt obliged not to kill his love rival in a duel and left St Petersburg for many years to ruminate on Freemasonry before deciding a knotted handkerchief was not for him. Instead, he chose to improve the lot of his serfs, who had up till now remained entirely invisible. “Harrumph,” he concluded at last. “I cannot improve their lot because they have never had it so good.” Tolstoy nodded approvingly, lifting his eyes momentarily from the handsome handmaiden beneath him.
“So, 500 roubles on the peace lasting,” said Nicholas, as Napoleon and the Tsar embraced in friendship, thereby losing the remains of the Rostov fortune.
“I am distraught,” Andrew declared as Natasha fell dangerously ill.
It was now 1812 and Pierre was beside himself as the French approached Moscow. “‘I am deranged with symbolism and Helene has left me even though I left her first. I vow to kill Napoleon,” he said.
“Je ne peux pas believe que je have just perdu the battle of Borodino,” Napoleon squeaked, his shoe-lifts giving him gip. “The French had by lointhe best army.”
“But Russia had nature and spirituality on its side,” said Tolstoy while a chorus of Volga boatmen sang patriotic songs.
“Can you not faire quelque chose about the fumee in Moscow?” asked Napoleon. “Et quand will I receive the surrender?”
“Jamais,” Mother Russia replied. First scorched earth, then General Winter. War is hell.
Pierre hovered between madness and death as the French performed atrocities during their withdrawal from the icy embrace of Mother Russia.
“There is a nobility in being broke,” said Nicholas’s aunt. “So I am going to give you some more money.” “Oh, thank you,” Nicholas replied. “Now I can marry Mary. And maybe you and Andrew can make up now, Natasha?”
“I forgive you, Natasha,” said Andrew, before dropping dead.
“That’s handy,” said Pierre, appearing out of nowhere. “Maybe I can marry you instead.”
“Yes please,” Natasha whimpered. “I can give up my singing, we can have four children and I can become a right old drudge, because Leo thinks that submission is a woman’s natural state.”
Tolstoy bowed his head. He was tired. The novel was a difficult thing. Not that his book was a novel, of course. Though people would be bound to call it that. Fools all of them. We can only know we know nothing.