Though entertaining, and promising a good series to come, this first episode is riddled with problems.
The first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace is a disjointed, but nevertheless entertaining affair. Released amid some (needless) controversy over the showrunner’s decision to portray an incestuous relationship (needless because one, it’s hardly anything new, and nowhere near as graphic as, say, Game of Thrones, and two, because it’s in the goddamn book anyway), the first episode does enough to establish the story and hook viewers with its ending, despite its first two thirds often veering towards a very same-y costume drama.
If, like many, you haven’t already read the almost 1500-page behemoth, the story is…complicated to say the least. It isn’t entirely surprising that the show might stumble here and there as it tries to condense lots of words into not so many episodes. Set in 1805, at the outbreak of Napolean’s advance into Austria and war with Russia, the show follows the lives of several Russian aristocratic families- the Rostovs, Bezukhovs, Bolonskys, Kuragins, and Drubetskoys. Are you beginning to see how things might get a bit confusing? Of those, the principle characters are Pierre Bezukhov (PaulDano), Natasha Rostova (Lily James), Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton), and Hélène Kuragin (Tuppence Middleton). It honestly is quite easy to follow when you actually watch, for which the show should be commended.
The acting, as with most every other aspect of the show, though, is patchy, in that it swings wildly from very very good, to hammy and cringeworthy. Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, 12 Years A Slave) turns in a solid performance as the show’s main protagonist, though one that is undermined by occasionally clunky attempts to convert Tolstoy’s use of the character as a spouter of philosophy, into modern television writing. James Norton does similarly well, warming up to his character as the episode progresses, while it is Middleton who shines in this first hour. She is the only actor (besides a brief supporting role for Jim Broadbent) to really bring something to her character, and her time on screen (which increases towards the end of the episode, coincidentally the point at which the whole thing starts to really take off) is the highlight of the show.
The same cannot be said for Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella), as the lead female character. While the argument can be made that it’s the writing (which, particularly for her character, is bad), James’ performance is just very off-putting. She lays on thick the childishness of the character, making for several insufferable scenes. Still, there is hope that as the character matures over the course of the show (which it should), James will be able to reign herself in and give a decent performance.
The rest of the show, as mentioned above, suffers from the same inconsistency in quality. There are some really stunning pieces of cinematography. The landscape shots are gorgeous, and the camera work for the battle sequences at the end of the episode are fantastic in their scale, but then we cut to the kind of low-rate shots you’d expect from a daytime drama. The set and costume design (it’s a period piece, this stuff is important), goes from immersive to hawkish and tacky.
Everything about this first episode is either good or bad, there is no in-between. It needs some serious polishing, but despite its flaws, it is genuinely entertaining. Hopefully as the show moves into the meat of Tolstoy’s story, it’ll reach the level of storytelling it deserves.
War and Peace airs on BBC One at 9pm on Sundays.