Time for our first costume drama of 2016, and the BBC has gone with a work that practically defines epic: War and Peace. This is the second time the BBC has shown Tolstoy’s masterpiece some adaptation love (the first time was in the early 70’s, with Anthony Hopkins playing Pierre). The first outing ran 17 hours and was a pretty slavish adaptation, from what I understand. This is a much leaner version that will undoubtedly trim quite a few minor characters and subplots. Let’s just see how it goes.
It’s 1805 and Napoleon has invaded Austria. Russia’s thrown in with Austria, which means war for Russia as well.
We open on a massive army encampment overlooked by, presumably, Napoleon himself before moving to St Petersburg, which looks really lovely.
Time for a ball! Drink! An awkward young man, Pierre, arrives and grabs a drink while the hostess, Anna Pavlovna (played by Gillian Anderson, whom the BBC just adores) chats about this impending war with another guest, Prince Vassily Kuragin, who reassures her their glorious emperor has things well in hand. Anna notices Pierre and we learn that Pierre’s the illegitimate son of a wealthy count who is also a kinsman of Kuragin’s. Pierre is staying in Kuragin’s home. We get a brief glimpse of Vassily’s two children, Helene and Anatol, who are clearly too cool for school here. Also, Helene’s costuming is so anachronistic it’s kind of distracting. She looks like she was dressed by a fashion designer from the 30’s who was taking some cues from the early 19th century but essentially hewing to art deco ideals.
A woman chases Vassily down so she can call in a favour and ask him to get her son, Boris, who looks like he’d rather be anywhere else on earth, a commission in the Guards. This woman is also named Anna, just to keep things confusing in this recap. Vassily impatiently agrees to see what he can do. Anna presses her luck and asks him to give her son a little something when Vassily comes into his presumed inheritance and he rather rudely turns her down.
Back at the party, Pierre starts spouting off about how awesome Napoleon is and how great French ideals are. He goes on to rant about how Russia’s drawing rooms are full of overfed aristocrats who don’t have a clue. Mind, he’s saying this to a roomful of those aristocrats, so there’s a room read fail right there, Pierre. He finishes by calling for a revolution in Russia. Well, give it about a century and you’ll get your wish, son.
Pierre finishes his rant and is then pulled aside by his friend, Andrei. As Helene passes, Pierre mourns the fact that she pays him no attention. He then asks after Andrei’s wife, Lise, who in the novel is apparently pretty superficial but here seems really sweet and pretty and likeable, which makes Andrei’s coldness towards her both bewildering and awful. It actually makes me kind of hate this character, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do.
As they leave, Lise, who’s pregnant, tells Pierre that Andrei is going off to war and shipping her off to his father, in the country, despite the fact that she hates the estate and finds it bleak and lonely. The poor woman practically begs her husband to show her some human emotion, but he can’t be bothered. Pierre feels all awkward and tries to leave, but Lise tells him to hang with his friend and she’ll just go home. Alone.
Pierre gives Andrei a ‘what’s your problem, man?’ look before they start talking about the war. Andrei’s going because he’s just so damn bored with his life of extreme privilege. Poor baby. His solution to this is to go off and get himself killed. Yes, that’ll make your life…less boring, I guess. Or you could just develop a hobby or something, like most people do. Pierre admits he doesn’t know what to do with himself and, now he’s hanging out with Anatole, he spends most of his nights engaging in debauchery. Andrei suggests he find new friends. Pierre promises to do so.
That promise lasts all of about ten minutes, and then Pierre joins Anatole and his bros in a seriously bacchanalian party that seems to involve taking windows apart, amongst other things.
Pierre is rudely awakened the following day by Vassily, who scolds him for behaving so disgracefully. Vassily informs Pierre that Pierre’s father is gravely ill, and they’re heading to Moscow immediately. Helene stops by to tease him a bit before going to do whatever it is she does.
On the carriage ride to Moscow, Pierre flashes back to the night before, which at some point involved a bear and some prostitutes. Not at the same time, presumably. Where did they get a bear from? I guess that’s not really what I should be focussing on right now, but it’s hard not to.
While stopping at a coaching inn for a bit, Vassily, not unkindly, tells Pierre that his dad’s in a bad way, and he should prepare himself. Also, Pierre shouldn’t expect much in the way of an inheritance. Less kindly, he promises to try to ensure Pierre is not left destitute, though he’s done precious little to deserve anything.
In Moscow, Pierre jumps out of the carriage at the home of his friends, the Rostovs, because it’s Natasha’s name day and that’s way more important than seeing his dying father.
The Rostovs, and Anna the Penniless (not Anna the Hostess) are gossiping about Pierre, talking about how he and his friends got their hands on a bear, tied a policeman to it, and threw both in the river. I’m a little confused about the timeline here. How long did it take Pierre to get to Moscow? How did Anna have time to get there ahead of him, after apparently hearing this story? That suggests she left at least a day or two after that party, but Pierre appears to have left the very morning after. Did he and Vassily just travel really slowly? I find that hard to believe.
Also, why does no one ask about the policeman who was strapped to a frightened bear and thrown into a Russian river?
Whatever, the Rostovs, especially the young teen daughter, Natasha, and the paterfamilias, Ilya, think the story’s hilarious. I’d like to point out that Anna’s son, Boris, is now in his Guards uniform, so clearly a fair bit of time has passed since Anna Pavlovna’s party, making the timeline even more confusing.
Everyone heaps praise on Boris in his uniform, and a woman named Julie breaks in that the eldest Rostov son, Nikolai, looks just as nice. Sonya, a cousin of the family, looks a bit upset by that.
Pierre, for some reason, comes in through the back way (I guess so he could pet the pigs?) and is warmly welcomed by the Rostovs. Nikolai is flirting with Julie now, and Sonya bursts into tears and rushes out. Natasha’s sent to find out what’s wrong with her. Sonya wails that Nikolai doesn’t love her anymore. Natasha insists that her brother’s just being polite. Sonya wails and pouts in a very teenage way (BTW, she’s played by Aisling Loftus, better known as Agnes from Mr Selfridge) so Natasha fetches her brother to reassure her. He does, kissing Sonya while Natasha watches from a hidden spot. Boris stumbles upon her, and apparently in a romantic mood, Natasha invites him to kiss her. She then takes the initiative and teases him, saying they’re now engaged.
Vassily goes to see his kinsman, who’s in a very bad way and can no longer speak. The poor man gestures to a portrait of Pierre, on the wall opposite the bed. Vassily says he understands and that the Count need have no fear.
Pierre is still at the Rostovs, and now they’re having a ball (drink!) Jesus, Pierre, your father is dying. Even if you two weren’t close, at least do the decent thing and put in an appearance.
Nikolai whispers to Sonya that he won’t give her up, that they’ll be married no matter what anyone says. She smiles in delight and buries her head on his shoulder.
Anna goes to Pierre and asks what the hell he’s still doing there. He admits he’s afraid to go to his father’s bedside and that he never really knew the man.
Natasha comes over and grabs Pierre for a dance. He protests that he doesn’t know what to do, but she won’t be deterred and shows him what to do. She tells him she’s really glad he came.
A message arrives for him, telling him that his father has had another stroke. Anna’s like, ‘right, time to go, junior.’ She bundles him and Boris into a carriage and off they go to the Count’s grand house, she telling Pierre on the way that he needs to grow up and look after his own interests now, because nobody else will.
Vassily sits down with his cousin, Catiche, who’s apparently been taking care of the old Count for some time now, and tells her they need to think about the future. Apparently, back in the day the Count made a will splitting his massive fortune amongst several family members, including Catiche and Vassily, but more recently he’s made a will that leaves everything to Pierre. Vassily tells Catiche they need to make sure that will never sees the light of day. She doesn’t think an illegitimate son can legally inherit, and the letter the Count wrote to the Emperor, recognising Pierre as his son, was never sent, but if either that letter or the newer will are found amongst the old man’s papers, everyone else in the family is screwed. It seems a little harsh to completely cut out Catiche, unless she was a really horrible caretaker.
Pierre finally shows up, but Vassily tries to bar him from the old man’s deathbed and (rightfully) scolds Pierre for partying instead of being there. He also tries to kick Anna out, but she points out that Boris is the Count’s godson, so he, at least, has a right to be there. She hustles Pierre forward and into the Count’s bedroom.
The man is in his final hours. Three priests finish up giving extreme unction (presumably) and depart. Anna coaches Pierre to sit by his father and take his hand. Jesus, Pierre, you really need someone to tell you this? Be a human! Pierre finally gets it together and kisses his father’s hand. His father seems delighted to see him, which is both sad and sweet. Pierre looks like he feels terrible right now, and well he should. Anna gently escorts him out of the room and Catiche and Vassily exchange a meaningful look. Once the others are gone, Catiche kisses the old man on the forehead and gently removes the papers stashed behind his pillow.
Outside the room, Pierre castigates himself for having been a bad son and Anna reassures him that God forgives.
Catiche emerges from the room and Anna immediately notes the papers and asks what they are. Catiche basically responds: ‘Nothing to see here! Just some papers! Totally unimportant papers!’ Anna wrestles them out of her grasp, and when someone appears to tell them all the old man is dead, Anna unwraps the folder, pulls the papers out, and triumphantly informs Pierre that this is his future. He is now the count and will inherit everything. She also urges him to remember what she just did for him. This woman’s a dab hand at collecting favours, isn’t she?
Vassily comes out of the death chamber and immediately starts ingratiating himself, because he’s no idiot.
Andrei and Lise arrive at Andrei’s family home, which is huge. Andrei, as always, looks bored to tears, while Lise is, at least, happy to see Marya, her sister-in-law, and another woman—a Frenchwoman, apparently.
Marya also manages to get a smile from Andrei, whom she embraces as she weeps, asking if he can at least spend the night before he goes marching off to war. He’ll do no such thing and goes to see his father.
His father seems like an interesting person, keeping himself busy with learning and whatever takes his interest. Andrei should really take a page from this man’s book. He chats with his son while writing something and briskly reassures Andrei they’ll take care of Lise. Andrei asks for them to bring a doctor from Moscow when Lise goes into labour, because she’s anxious and he thinks this might help. That’s the most human he’s seemed so far. Andrei’s father sends him off with an embrace and a message for Kutuzov, the general Andrei will be serving with.
Outside the study, Maria begs her brother to wear a religious emblem, even though he’s not a believer, because it kept their grandfather safe in the wars and it would give her some peace if she knew he was wearing it. He kisses it and promises to do so, for her.
He then reluctantly goes to say goodbye to Lise, embracing her stiffly and rather coldly allowing her to kiss him before he peels her off him. She wails and begs him to stay, but he manhandles her into a chair and just leaves as she sobs. Man, what an asshole. Look, Andrei, being bored with your life doesn’t give you leave to be a horrible person.
[cryout-pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”33%”]Look, Andrei, being bored with your life doesn’t give you leave to be a horrible person[/cryout-pullquote]
Nikolai and Boris make their farewells to the Rostoves. Nikolai’s mother weeps, Sonya panics and is reassured by Natasha, and Ilya tries to remain stoic. The family waves the young men off.
The Russian army marches into Austria. Kutuzov admires the men for their stamina and talks strategy with Andrei. They’re to meet up with another general, Mack, at Ulm and stop Napoleon there.
A man arrives at Kutuzov’s headquarters, demanding to see the general. This is General Mack. He’s been outflanked and forced to surrender his entire army of 70,000 men. Well, that’ll be quite a blow. Kutuzov has no choice but to retreat until they can join up with their reinforcements and the other Austrian armies.
Nikolai is super bummed he won’t get to fight, but another, more seasoned soldier, Denisov, promises he’ll get his chance, at some point.
Natasha and Sonya talk about the boys, who have been really bad about writing letters home. Natasha asks Sonya if she thinks about Nikolai all the time and Sonya says she does, of course. Natasha admits that she can hardly remember what Boris looked like, which seems strange to her. Sonya says it’s because Natasha isn’t in love with Boris. Sonya thinks Natasha’s really in love with Pierre, because they danced that one time.
Pierre confesses to Vassily that he can’t quite believe he has so much and feels like it’s not quite right or fair. Vassily tells him not to think of these things as his, but as something he safeguards for the next generation. Pierre insists he wants to do something useful and good. Vassily warns him not to rush into anything and offers to look after business matters for him while Pierre looks to finding a wife.
Anatole joins his sister in bed, where she’s reclining naked. As they spoon and he (it’s implied) plays with her lady parts, he tells her that their father’s making marriage plans for them. Anatole’s to be paired with Andrei’s sister, Maria, while Helene, of course, is destined for Pierre. She’s not a fan of the idea, but Anatole tells her Pierre will be an adoring husband who’ll probably let her do whatever she wants. Also, Pierre’s super rich. She considers it.
Anna Pavlovna is now happily welcoming Pierre to another of her parties and making much of him. Pierre admits he’s not comfortable yet in high society and that Vassily thinks he should get married soon, but he’s no good with girls. Anna tells him it’s the ladies’ job to entertain him, not the other way around. She leaves him with Helene, who charms him perfectly. Now she’s wearing a dress that looks like Directoire meets Alexander McQueen. What’s up with her costuming?
Andrei learns that the Russian army is in danger of being outflanked, so a small contingent is being left to engage the French while the bulk of the army continues to retreat. This is a total suicide mission, so of course Andrei volunteers.
Predictably, it’s a bloodbath. But to Nikolai’s joy, the hussars are called out, so he’ll get to see battle after all! The hussars unsheathe their swords and charge a bunch of men with guns. How could anyone think that’s a good idea? How did anyone in the cavalry ever survive? Naturally, this does not go well for them. Nikolai is injured and his horse killed. He manages to crawl back to the woods and finds some friendlies.
The battle continues into the night. Andrei calls for the guns to be pulled back before they’re lost and throws himself into the fray.
It’s now winter in St Petersburg. Pierre and Helene go ice skating under the benevolent eye of her father and Anna Pavlovna. Vassily admits that Pierre’s moving slowly, so he may have to ‘force the issue.’
Pierre and Helene play cards and she notices that something seems to be bothering him. He tells her that he feels like all this is wrong, that it wasn’t meant for him. She tells him that’s silly and they go back to their game. That was a totally pointless scene.
That night, he has a sex dream about her
At a dinner party, Helene tries to force Pierre to propose to her.
Pierre: Look, it’s not you, it’s me. It’s complicated, ok?
Helene’s face: Dad, you’re up.
Vassily gets up and heartily congratulates the pair. Pierre’s confused, so Helene, beaming, kisses him and informs him they’re now engaged. He looks shocked, as well he might.