The young Sonya and Natasha as we first see them on Natasha and her mother’s name day, Sonya revealing to Natasha how much she loves Nikolai (Episode 1)
Dear friends and readers,
I just loved this mini-series, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov (quietly marvelous); Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova and Joanna David as Sonya Alexandrovna (cousins, both perfect in the roles almost as envisaged by Tolstoy, only Pulman writes for Sonya far more depths of pain and rebellion within); my favorite actress from the 1970s BBCs series, Angela Downs as Marya Bolkonskaya, Alan Dobie slowly melting into a thoughtful conflicted Andrei Bolkonsky, her brother, and perhaps best of all, Frank Middlemas as an unforgettable scene-stealing General Kutusov against the steely-iron egoist Napoleon performed by David Swift. I could go on to name more (Sylvester Morand is a more sensitive Nikolai, brother to Natasha, but perfect as the conventional man, with Gary Watson superbly just your moral effective soldier, Denisov, understandably in love with Natasha). And must not omit the other central controlling creative presence, John Davies as director. There is still such snobbery about TV films that the recent anthology Tolstoy on Screen never discusses it.
Pierre, young, nervous, puzzled as his father (not legally. and whom he hardly knows but has been all powerful and is enormously rich) lies dying in a nearby room (Episode 1)
It was after my first watch-through of this that I proposed on Trollope19thCStudies that we read Tolstoy’s War and Peace together. Of Tolstoy’s text as translated by the Mauds, and revised by Mandelkera realized: What is so entrancing is how carefully subtly done are all the scenes, how Tolstoy’s philosophical and political thought is gotten into the film by inventing further scenes that frame what’s in the book; how each hour is a unit in its own, with its own mood and juxtapositions fitted so perfectly.
My experience was at first it is hard to get into the story as Pulman is moving naturalistically and not attempting to rivet our attention at all costs. Very like his quietly opening magnificent I, Claudius, this War and Peace series grows on you (like Tolstoy’s book). After a while, you realize you are so involved with the characters and stories and themes. As with my blog on the first two War and Peace movies (going in chronological order of making), the 1955 King Vidor and 1966 Bondarchuk W&Ps, I won’t go over the book’s story line and characters but leave the reader to find a summary or read my first blog on Tolstoy’s novel — or (as I hope) the reader has, or is about to, read Tolstoy’s masterpiece. I find the wikipedia page contains minimal cast lists and awards, and no break-down of episodes, no commentary, and there has as yet been not one essay in a published film journal (on-line or off), I’ll proceed episode by episode, 20 in all.
Episodes 1: Name-Day; and 2: Sounds of War
Uncannily (for I doubt Pulman read Tolstoy and his wife’s manuscripts as described by R.F. Christian in his book on the ms’s and sources of Tolstoy’s W&P), uncannily, Pulman reverses the scenes the novel opens with in the way they appeared in an early draft of the book.
The first episode in early drafts of W&P allow us to meet our central Rostov family: the fond weak naive count (Rupert Davies), uxorious over his calculatingly worldly wife, the Countess (Faith Brooke pitch perfect in this part); enjoying themselves by the spectacle now that they won it, all the while they are (clearly) overspending and being sluiced by everyone around them. In this the same limpet-clinger, Anna Mikhailovna (Anne Blake) greedy for money for her slowly emerging worldly son, Boris (Neil Stacy, aptly the same type in The Pallisers, Laurence Fitzgibbon, Phineas’s fair-weather friend). Episode 2 brings us to the first passages of Tolstoy’s novel, “What do you think of this man, Napoleon,” the fake patina of concern, the cant feeling of Anna Scherer (Barbara Young) in talk with the novel’s strongest site of mindless corruption for money and rank, Prince Vassily.
Anna Scherer and Prince Vassily – the first moments of the novel realized (Episode 2)
Pierre comes in and his candor, intense interest in and sympathy for the “revolution” and Napoleon immediately makes him a pariah, laughing stock, but his equally sincere (if far more polished or cagey) friend, Andrei is there, and we see how bored this intelligent man is with his wife, but also how rough and hard to her. Pierre is as yet flotsam and jetsam and after promising not to go to the debauchery party of the novel’s slimy amoral drone aristocratic male semi-rake, Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker, fitting son for Vassily), Pierre goes and thrusts himself into the drunken feats and cruelty to a bear and police officer that ensue. And then the (for me the first time) the astonishing frank depiction of the fight between Vassily and Princess Katische (cousin to Pierre, stands to inherit a lot if he doesn’t) on the one hand to grasp the money, and Anna Mikhailovna on behalf of Pierre who she hopes will reward her well, over the dying man’s papers & will. The unscrupulous Anna is in fact responsible for Pierre becoming a rich man, a fact that empowers several sets of characters in the book. A fitting contrast to Andrei’s austere, old-fashioned patriarchal home, the rasping tyrannical father, old Prince Bolkonsky (Anthony Jacobs) making life miserable by enforcing geometry on his self-effacing deeply generous puritan of a daughter, Marya.
From the first scene of Andrei and his sister, Marya, they capture the implicit depths of bonding and communication of this pair (Episode 2)
Andrei unburdening himself of his wife by setting off for the “heroism” and honor of war duty. Andrei will be disillusioned slowly. The different worlds of the upper classes, gender faultlines, feeding off war of “le monde” that form the novel.
And then our first battle: Episode 3: Skirmish at Schongraben
This is a remarkable hour. The BBC people had to film real people, crowds of them in formations, real animals, gotten real canons and shot out from them. They tried for historical accuracy with weaponry and uniforms. They burn down a real bridge they had built. The scenes of masses of men must be there. I wondered what park they were using :). They were not able to project and show the carnage Tolstoy’s language can do so efficiently but it enough was done to be suggestive. The whole hour was given over to these hard war scenes, and an anti-war bias of the film has begun. Frank Middlemass particularly believable, effective — as when they learn of a massacre of the whole army of General Mack, and Andrei appalled to see how little seriously many people take this.
POV Kutusov hurrying out of his room to Mack to register his sense of the horror the man has known, from the back Andrei
It helps clarify the novel for someone reading this part of it. David Swift starts up the character of Napoleon quietly; Tolstoy begins with the man as nasty, as numinously strong in his manipulative letters, cunning and bold: Swift and Pulman’s Napoleon only gradually shows himself centrally egoistic. But note how we are now in a historical film. And at the close Nikolai’s first experience of battle: his shock at the real danger, at people actually wanting to kill him (though he had wanted to kill them and hadn’t thought about it); when they blow up the bridge it seems to him a game (not so to Denisov)
Episode 4: A letter and two proposals; 5: Austerlitz; 6: Reunions
Now the spillages begin as well as clear structuring: as the scene opens the Count is weeping over a letter; it’s from Nikolai telling of how he was wounded, the family’s characteristic half-comical over-responses and mode of re-assuring themselves. The unvarnished sincere emotionalism is then contrasted to the worldly cunning which despoils lives: Vassily maneuvers Pierre into marrying his daughter, Helene (Fiona Gaunt, a thankless role), shown to be utterly hollow, embarrassingly sexy, and after wealth of a man she hardly knows and despises, but Pierre unable to extract himself (not for the last time).
The pain to come of this contrasts to the pain experienced when the plain Marya finds herself courted for the first time by Vassily for his son, Anatole.
She cannot but welcome the possible escape
But the complex old man maneuvers the situation to leave Marya distraught over Anatole’s hypocrisy, and chasing of the French companion-semi-mistress, Mlle Bourienne. The old prince is saving Marya a lifetime of grief, but she is so hemmed in by him she can meet no one naturally. Contrasting close-ups of Pierre desperately pressured and allured and Marya in bed brooding
And again a full episode of war: Austerlitz pivotal in the book, for at its close Andrei seems to have been killed, and the Russians permanently defeated. Long war scenes which show incompetence, scores of people dying for nothing (the book shows this), Napoleon emerges multi-sided, powerful man with an attempt to explain (he’s not at all like the characters seeking true friends, he’d laugh), a man strongly controlled on battlefields and seeming enigmatic political performances.
Nikolai maturing (Episode 5)
One of many moments in the battle landscape (Episode 5)
By the end of Episode 5 all the characters are dispersed and then in 6, Reunion, they are brought back to where they started: grief as Andrei’s death is understood from uncertain letters; Nikolai’s home-coming to love; Pierre’s to cool indifference; Helene now having an affair with Dolokov (Donald Burton), a bright cunning amoral rakish and sadistic side-kick of Anatole’s; the death of the princess in childbirth just as Andrei does return. What’s plotted is a cyclical repetitive structuring, a return to the same character in the same situation but older, there’s been intervening experience
Far shots, odd angles, landscapes each make a different statement: this is a courtyard modeled on typical Russian country mansions of the early 19th century (Episode 5)
I am impressed by how: how brilliantly and convincingly Pulman conveys Tolstoy’s depiction of nervous distress in a nuanced way so as to show it in public situations. The explorations of the miseries of these arranged marriages by showing someone marrying badly and how he’s engineered into it: Pierre with Helene. Pierre has a rich good nature and is thus taken advantage of by Vassily who forestalls his holding off by just pretending that Pierre has asked for Ellen’s hand. Yet Vassily does not succeed with Prince Bolkonsky: Vassily having garnered Pierre’s fortune into his family, makes a move on Maria, the homely Bolkonsky daughter, and ironically the ill-natured man are much better able to fend off this than the semi-trusting instinctive one: Anatole is precisely wrong for Maria who is fooled by him: he would have had an affair with the French governess before he left the mansion. Ironically we see how the foolishly aptly-worldly Andre’s wife, the little Princess does just fine with the hypocritical shits like Anatole and Vassily. Yet she’s become poor in health; she needs society, Andrei as her husband with brains, or her pregnancy will destroy her. Anthony Hopkins’s performance: young then and calibrated just right, with no embarrassment. People individually; in “le monde,” in war.
Walking and Talking (Episode 7)
Episodes 7: New Beginnings; 8: A Beautiful Tale
The first ironically titled; the second (unusual for any book or film) uses a surge of idealism and hope first to undermine Andrei’s bitterness and losses. Andrei is pulled by Pierre’s visits from his retirement and meditatiom, meets and is “recalled to life” (a Dickensian phrase for a man come out of prison) by the intensity of Natasha’s youthful hopefulness and joy in all the sensuality and thoughts, plans of existence found in Natasha at a ball.
Andrei asking Natasha to dance (Episode 8)
The sun on his eyes (Episode 8)
Pulman, together with stunning performances by the actors, did justice to Tolstoy’s book. After Austerlitz, after a dual, a death from pregnancy, disease, we see a turn to meaninglessness as the good characters cannot get others to act seriously, usefully, lives not realized, gifts thrown away, the absurd lack of thought and also how the man given big honors knows this (Frank Middlemas as Kutusov got that across at this table). Pierre is driven by needling and insults from Doloknov at the same dinner party to duel with him as his wife’s lover and shoots to kill — an act of naivete (I bond with this aspect of Pierre.) Luckily Doloknov does not die as he in his apparent last breath tries to kill in turn, and then grieves over how his mother will miss him.
Dolohkov, Nikolai, Denisov Laughing at Pierr, his POV (Episode 7)
Pierre fleeing the scene of the duel (Episode 7)
Then we have the scene of Pierre shouting hysterically at his awful wife (the portrait in Tolstoy is misogynistic and Pulman keeps to it) to get out. He can’t stand the sight of her. She says oh yes, she can hardly wait, but he is going to pay.
Very moving were too long dialogues you’d never see today. The first Pierre on his way to his estate, in retreat from the corrupt society, meets with a Mason and they talk deeply about life’s meaning: whether one should believe in God or an afterlife and what if you don’t. He becomes a Mason. Pullman shows the ceremonies to be absurd (modeled on some performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute either Pulman or Davies saw.
He visits Andrei and now we have another more enlightenment type discourse where Andrea is the atheistic view and more or less wins as probable and Andrei proposes another way to get through life – -you don’t need to believe in this overarching pattern at all. It seems more or less you muddle through. Don’t even try to do good – -which is what Pierre has been trying on his estate. We do get views of the peasants where are deeply class-ridden but the film means seriously
A wholly invented scene for Napoleon in council conveys Tolstoy’s views on history (how it works), philosophy (what is the meaning of life even) in ways relevant to politics today. It’s a relief for em to re-watch this film over and over.
Episode 9: Leave of Absence
Natasha dancing to a folk violin played by her uncle
The title is utterly inadequate: this hour includes the beautiful renditon of the Rostovs’ Christmas embedded inside the family pathologies and tensions and misunderstandings of the Bolkonskys (the old prince’s biting cruelty to Andrey, the countess’s hysterical tirades at Nikolai, his at the stewards) and the desolation of Pierre as with over-voice he tells us of his life with whores/flunkies in his wife’s salon (the Masons have not helped). To me nothing comes near this rendition of War and Peace. From the point of view of moving the story forward, or about the character’s coming fates, the film “wasted” the whole hour. This was a splendid full scale elaboration of a Christmas interlude at the Rostovs in the country just after we are told their finances are in a wretched state – we’ve seen how Nikolai gambled away a huge sum in the previous episode. All the characters are in character: the dinner, the dancing, the hunt with another family; it was atmospheric, the idea Talleyrand’s about how sweet such lives were before the tumbrils began to roar through Paris. it is a high point in the novel too.
Episode 10: Madness
Natasha trying to explain her vulnerability to such a seduction/attack.
In this episode as Pulman presents this supposedly nadir of Natasha’s young life, she succumbs to her nervous distress at having to wait for a year for a man to return to her and then decide if he wants her, the disdain of his family, and falls for anyone who says he values her. I know outwardly this kind of incident — the young girl eloping with a cad or looking at him so idiotically happens; in the book Tolstoy finds less explanation for it than Pullman in this BBC movie. Davies (BBC, 2015, Lily James as Natasha) has the Freudian erotic enthrallment paradigm in mind more (for Tolstoy that seems to be the whole matter). Sonya saves her and Pierre comforts her. Probably because I now know of the opera playing on Broadway with the title, Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812, for the first time I took note of Pierre’s pointing to it as an omen. I didn’t note it much when I listened or read either. Especially the 2007 mini-series made for TV of W&P focuses precisely on this particular incident: that film turns the book into a soap opera heroine-centered Victorian melodrama (idiot girl fooled by vicious young man ends up punished but is comforted by good young man). Pulman’s shows how the same literal material can make a viewer/reader soar as these beautifully natured characters begin to recognize a life’s companion.
Since the characters have been given so much time to develop, the awakening relationship because of this incident between Pierre and Natasya is believable and touching. Beatrice Lehmann is superb as the aunt who rescues Natasha from eloping with the shit Kuragin male, Antoine (married to someone else) on Sonya’s say-so then castigates Natasha for “disgusting” (read sexual) behavior. Unlike Tolstoy’s or Davies, Pulman’s Andrei is hurt but also relieved — he was about to make another mistake, marry another girl far too young for him. Pierre is the site of consolation in the book and this mini-series. No one comes near him in moral understanding. Though he hasn’t got the strength of character to withstand the society around him when he confronts evil, and he certainly hasn’t the power to change much, he is getting better at it. The episode ends with him comforting Natasha
It is not hard when experiencing this mini-series or reading the book to understand that this core is not the whole even to a limited extent what shapes the experience (which is the mistake of both the Vidor 1955 and the 2007 mini-series). The moment would not have the larger meaning it does without our exploration of the larger corrupt society, the worlds of Russia, the family lives, how so many types find different meaning and loss in their interactions, and how politics by military violence, the top pest males (Alexander I played by the quiet David Douglas is as selfish and uncomprehending of anything beyond himself as Napoleon in the film), and their imitators at all levels impinges on everything. In this scenario, Helene, Anna Mikhailovna, Anna Scherer, Countess Rostov, Katische are the female servants of this order. Those major characters resisting are Pierre, Natasha, Sonya, those upholding but with decent values Nikolai, Denisov, Count Rostov (though he’s been sluiced)
As Borodino is the pivotal moment for “the war” and larger history parts of the book, so Natasha’s enthrallment out of weakness, shame and her near-abduction incident is the pivotal climax for the “le monde” part of the novel. Pulman imitates this structure.
Tomorrow the second 10 episodes.