The series which was been hyped as an ambitious and epic costume drama filled with love, sacrifice and warfare took its final bow last night, leaving millions of viewers without a Sunday night drama to discuss, debate and weep over next week. Believe me, I would know as I was one of those sniffing, sofa-hogging watchers tuning in for the end of what has certainly been an experience.
Well, now. Where to begin? War & Peace has certainly lived up to its promise of an epic period piece of television, providing us with excitement and sadness alongside laughs and romance. It has also had its downs. Pacing has been an issue from the first episode, especially considering the multiple storylines and character interactions needing to be established to such a wide audience. Some episodes felt a tad slow and without emotional impact.
Take the introduction of Pierre, one of the young protagonists who grew and developed into a kind-hearted man. Towards the beginning of the series, Pierre was an irritation. His fumbling and immature relations with alcohol and men’s clubs left me seeing him only as a boy with very few appealing traits. It was only after his father passed and his inheritance arrived that Pierre became an exciting, and yes, challenging, character. He was often scared and unsure, being manipulated by others in need of wealth and friends in higher places. Throughout the series, Pierre became married to the wonderfully wicked Helene, transitioned into a Freemason and ultimately learned the lessons of sacrifice and what it means to be truly happy in life. His arc, I felt, was the most parallel to the series’ title.
However, War & Peace equally followed all of the characters and we saw different kinds of war. There was war between lovers, friends and enemies alike. Then there was a dangerous, life-consuming war between Russia and France as Napoleon threatened everything dear to the characters’ everyday lives. The peace we witnessed in-between the violence and the fighting established something wonderful.War & Peace certainly excelled in exploring the smaller relationships and moments in life. For example, dances, family gatherings and nights out watching a comet. These scenes were often the ones which stayed with us afterwards, just like how the characters clung to them during harsher times. A moment which stood out for me was the reunion between two enemies, Prince Andrei and Anatole Kuragin, as they shockingly met again in a bloody hospital during one of the many battles. Instead of fighting the two men simply reached out and held hands amidst the chaos.
Many costume dramas are quick to shy away from the realism of war and death. They can gloss over bloody limbs and young, dead soldiers and skip straight to the glorious heroism. War & Peace refused to do this. With a flawless ensemble cast, we became attached to many characters who faced death, or at least the heart-breaking consequences of war. Young boys died and mothers and fathers lost their children far sooner than they should. I think this is what drove the series to success, despite its flaws in narrative flow and pace. The wide spaces were vacant, not romantic like most period dramas. Empty, abandoned houses haunted the characters in their grief, and we were unable to escape it either.
Our morals were given a good shaking as well. The show asked many questions such as ‘What is a victory without death?’. After all, winning and losing are all a matter of perspective, and War & Peace showed us many. We saw princes fall, enemies facing heartache and peasants impacting the life of a count. These gradients between good and evil, and winning and losing, all changed in different ways throughout the series.Some characters were left without a typical happy ending. Take the lovely and self-sacrificing Sonya, who held on to a love she could never fully have, whilst Andrei’s death destroyed Natasha’s dream. Our final scene, however, showed an oddly final conclusion to the series. Natasha and Pierre were married with children, as were Princess Marya and Nikolai, Natasha’s older brother. Natasha’s mother and Sonya were also part of the family. However the music – which I’ll touch upon next – was strangely ominous. It felt religious and epic, but also served as a reminder as to the losses that every character around the table had endured.
I’d like to mention the music a little further. It was one of my highlights of the series and I found myself rewinding parts just to hear the soundtrack again. The ball score was magical, reflecting Natasha’s fantastic fairy-tale night, whilst the soundtracks for the battles were harsh and demanding in volume. At times I was drawn more to the music than the dialogue, especially when the pace dwindled.
Stand-out performances from the cast included Jim Broadbent as the wonderfully frustrating and heart-breaking father of Andrei and Marya, and Tuppence Middleton as the alluring and secretive Helene, whose demise was a frightening reminder of how delicate a woman’s place in society was in those times. Lily James was the glue that held the series together, as was her character. James’ charm was undeniable as she portrayed the different stages of Natasha’s life. Kudos to the costume and makeup department for making the progressions natural and believable too.
Overall, there was something I strongly enjoyed about BBC One’s War & Peace. There was a careful balance between the relationships – romantic and familial – and the violence of war. It was dark enough to claim realism, yet optimistic enough to encourage us to appreciate the smaller things in life. Potatoes for instance.