Leo Tolstoy’s massive novel War and Peace has been done in film and for television many times, but the latest version now airing on not one or two but three networks simultaneously is the most ambitious and fast-paced yet made for the small screen. Broadcast Monday nights on History, Lifetime and A&E at 9 p.m. Eastern, it has all of the noisy battle scenes, sumptuous costumes, gorgeous sets and stunning location shots that viewers and fans of the book could hope for, yet moves quickly with well-known actors delivering their crisply written lines with the kind of excitement and energy too rarely found in period dramas.
Much of the credit for that goes to Andrew Davies, of House of Cards fame, whose screenplay is sharp and fast. Davies hits all of the major points of the famous book without bogging down the viewer in the kind of deep philosophical discussions or lengthy salon scenes which work brilliantly and deliciously in print but which can bring a television series to a dead stop. A veteran of many BBC productions, of which War and Peace is one of the latest, Davies has a gift for telling a familiar story – even one as famous as Tolstoy’s – in a manner that makes it seem fresh.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars and culminating with the French emperor’s invasion of Russia in 1812, War and Peace is a big, sprawling historical epic. While familiarization with the book or the era will enrich the viewing experience, neither is a prerequisite, for the basic story is timeless and simple enough: men go off to war, come back, fall in and out of love, and then go off to war again.
What also helps make this production so engaging is that viewers will recognize so many of the actors from major films and from popular BBC America and PBS television shows. Lily James late of Downton (and the movie Cinderella), for example, is the main female character, Natasha, a young girl who grows up over the seven years of war and peace covered by the novel. Aisling Loftus (of both the Musketeers and Mr. Selfridge) is her poor, orphaned cousin who is taken in by Natasha’s family and is hopelessly in love with Natasha’s brother, Nikolai. James Norton (the vicar turned detective from Grantchester) is the noble, brave yet melancholy soldier Count Andrei Bolkonsky, and film actor Paul Dano, one of the few Americans in the cast, plays the other principal male lead, the thoughtful, often confused, sometimes bumbling everyman Pierre Bezukhov. Stephen Rea, James Broadbent, Gillian Anderson and Brian Cox among other well-known professionals also have featured roles in the epic production.
For both the History channel and A & E, War and Peace marks a return to the type of programming for which they were initially famed. It is also the kind of prestige show that Lifetime used to air. That all three networks are showing it simultaneously, as well as offering repeat and on-demand airings, hopefully will help the BBC production reach a wider audience than it would had it been shown on BBC America or PBS, either of which would surely have been proud to present this stellar version of an oft-told, famous and deeply compelling story.
Part one of War and Peace debuted on History, A &E and Lifetime Monday, January 18 at 9 p.m. Eastern. Parts two, three and four will air on subsequent Mondays. Episodes are being repeated during the course of the week in which they first air (see local listings) and are available on demand after their initial airing.